A national secular organization is in a frenetic push to ensure that the voices of atheists, agnostics and “freethinkers” are heard in statehouses across the country and in the presidential election in the fall.
The Secular Coalition of America plans to have statewide chapters in virtually all 50 states by the end of 2012.
“Recently, we’ve seen some of the most egregious bills commingling religion and government at the state level,” spokeswoman Lauren Youngblood said. “If we’re going to fight some of this stuff, we have to fight it at state capitols.”
The D.C.-based group, which will outline its plans for national expansion on Thursday, intends to fight pro-religious legislation on the state and national level.
One example: a bill passed in Virginia this year allowing faith-based adoption agencies to enact a “conscience clause” that allows them to turn away potential applicants based on their sexual orientation if it runs counters to their religious beliefs.
The group also has concerns about what it sees as pro-religious biases in President Obama’s health care overhaul. The coalition held a Lobby Day for Reason in March, when 200 people gathered on Capitol Hill to raise awareness and talk about discrimination in the Affordable Care Act.
As a 501(c)4 nonprofit, the group does not endorse candidates, but it has put out scorecards for the 2012 presidential candidates.
President Obama received A’s for accepting evolution, supporting scientifically based regulations and legislation, combating religious discrimination and promoting civil rights.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, received an A for accepting evolution and, in the “God, Faith and Governance” category, for saying he separates matters of faith from political leadership.
Mr. Obama got a C in that category, with the group citing an interview on “Nightline” in which the president said he prays for “guidance” in leading the country.
Ms. Youngblood said the group was in the process of updating its scorecard.
“Essentially, we’re just trying to give voters what they need,” she said.
Religious leaders predicted the Secular Coalition of America and groups like it would have a hard time gaining a foothold in conservative, pro-church states.
“Religious freedom has a particularly high place in Virginia’s history. I would only expect that to continue,” said Jeff Caruso, president of the Virginia Catholic Conference, one of many religious groups that successfully lobbied for the state’s “conscience clause” measure.
“If we take the debate over faith-based child-placing agencies, I think the General Assembly heard both sides of the debate,” he said. “And they came very firmly down on the side of protecting faith-based agencies.”
Still, the SCA is trying to broaden its influence with conservatives: Edwina Rogers, the group’s recently hired executive director, was an economic adviser for President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002 and worked on international trade matters for President George H.W. Bush at the Commerce Department from 1989 to 1991. She also worked for former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, and was general counsel for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1994.
“I think my Republican credentials will certainly help the Secular Coalition for America to go beyond its traditional reach and reach across the aisle, because secular values are American values,” Ms. Rogers said. “And secular issues are nonpartisan.”
The group met with President Obama’s administration last year, and Ms. Youngblood said it would reach out to Mr. Romney, whose Mormon faith has given pause to some Republicans, if he wins the election.
“Where we can, we like to build alliances and form relationships,” she said. “We have meetings with Republicans, tea party people, liberals, Democrats - everybody.”