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Atheists in Maine Seek Louder Political Voice
09/14/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

This week a group of atheists, agnostics, humanists and other non-believers in Maine took the initial step toward flexing their collective political muscle in Augusta. They launched a Maine chapter of the Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying organization that has traditionally worked at the federal level. As Susan Sharon reports, the group will focus on what it considers the most egregious violations of the separation of church and state.

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According to a Pew research survey from late last year nearly one in five Americans is non religious. In Maine the survey finds the degree of skepticism is even higher: 41 percent of residents don't express an absolute belief in God. The Secular Coalition of America wants to raise the profile of these non-believers who traditionally have been unorganized in political circles.

"Hi everyone, welcome to the Secular Coalition for America, Maine chapter initial organizing conference call." This week about a dozen self-identified Maine atheists and others dialed in to hear the pitch. The Coalition is actively working to establish chapters in Maine and about 10 other states. Three states have already officially come on board.

Lauren Anderson Youngblood, a spokesperson for the group, says the goal is to protect and strengthen the separation of religion and government. For the past 10 years the work has been concentrated in Washington. But then lobbyists started to notice that some of the biggest problems were happening at the state level.

"For example, in Pennsylvania right now we're seeing an attempt to create exemptions for religiously-based daycares so that these daycare centers don't have to comply with general health and safety standards," Youngblood says.

The Coalition is now hoping to eventually roll out chapters in all 50 states. Youngblood says the groups are non-partisan. They won't endorse candidates. But they will speak out and educate policymakers about ballot initiatives and other issues.

"We outnumber many religious groups in this country, including Jews, Episcopalians, Mormons, to name just a few," Youngblood says. "So it's really disappointing that many taxpaying Americans would be excluded by those who are elected to represent all Americans regardless of their religious beliefs."

Among those who joined the organizing phone call was Doug Bunker of Ellsworth. "I've been skeptical forever," he says. I am a unrepetent atheist."

Bunker is the moderator of a group called the Downeast Humanists and Free Thinkers that's been meeting once a month in Ellsworth for the past seven years. He says he welcomes the Secular Coalition's efforts to establish a chapter in Maine, where he says it's time for non-theists to raise their voices.

Bunker says he was personally bothered last winter by the creation of a lawmakers' prayer caucus at the State House that embraced the Christian theology and encouraged other citizens to pray. "To use that opportunity to profess a religious preference, I thought, was the wrong message to send in a state with diverse religious groups and non-believers in it."

Bunker says the Secular Coalition's training and resources should help people like him become more visible in Augusta. The Coalition isn't the only group of its kind putting down roots in Maine. Another homegrown group, the Atheists of Maine, plans to have its first meeting in the Augusta area later this month.



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