- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Atheist and other secularist groups announced plans yesterday to flood Congress on July 17 with e-mail, letters and telephone calls against President Bush's faith-based initiative.

"The Day That Counts" initiative, led by Madalyn Murray O'Hair's former group American Atheists, encourages nonreligious citizens to contact members of Congress to oppose what the groups deem to be a "religion tax" imposed on Americans.

The groups have an array of complaints against the initiative, but collectively agree that it is unjust and a violation of the First Amendment clause barring the establishment of religion.

"Justice and logic and history and religious freedom and our Constitution all make it clear that it is simply wrong to take money away from people with no religion and use it to pay for advancing any religion," Ed Buckner, the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, said at a news conference yesterday at the National Press Club. "No tax support of religion can be justified. Not now, not ever."

Added Jeff Dee of the Atheist Community of Austin: "It is wrong because it gives your tax dollars to groups whose stated goal is to convert your children, your friends, and your neighbors to religious viewpoints which may oppose your own.

"Of course those groups are free to try and persuade others to agree with them, but the government is not free to give them your tax dollars to help them do it," Mr. Dee said.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Tony P. Hall, Ohio Democrat and primary co-sponsor of the House version of Mr. Bush's plan, called such opposition to the proposal on church-state grounds unfounded.

Rep. J.C. Watts, Oklahoma Republican and the principal author of the bill, "took great pains to ensure that this does not violate the Constitution in any way," said Deborah De Young, a special assistant to Mr. Hall. "The more people that start thinking this through on their own, the more likely they are to come to the conclusion that this proposal has a lot of promise and is not at all risky."

A number of groups said the initiative inherently discriminates on the basis of religion by using a "religious litmus test" to distribute federal funds.

David Silverman, the president of the Alliance of Lucent and AT&T Atheists and Secularists, said the plan promotes and practices bigotry, discriminating against groups that don't "believe in the right religion."

Ron Barrier, the national spokesman for American Atheists, called the plan an "insidious conspiracy to rape both the Constitution and the American public."

"Religion is a multibillion-dollar marketing and recruiting juggernaut with a singularity of purpose that would make the Borg envious," he said, referring to the hive-minded race depicted in some of the "Star Trek" series.

The groups also said the initiative's administrators will not enforce regulations on the participating religious groups for fear of appearing to attack ministers.

"Our leaders refuse to hold religious groups and leaders accountable," said Stuart Bechman of the Atheist Alliance International. "Before we open up our public purse to outside groups, we should expect our leaders to find strong evidence that potential recipients are deserving, willing and capable of the mission they are asked to deliver."

The coalition has a Web site, www.thedaythatcounts.com, devoted to publicizing the campaign. The groups said yesterday that about 2,000 people have already signed an online "statement of personal endorsement" supporting their efforts. Group organizers say there are about 27 million atheists or other nonreligious people in the United States.

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