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Those who don't believe just as adamant as religious folk

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By Michael Aubele
Sunday, April 1, 2012
 

They are not from Mars.

While based in Madison, Wis., the Freedom From Religion Foundation has members in every state, including about 600 in Pennsylvania. The common denominator among those who belong is a lack of faith in God and a corresponding conviction that religion has no place in government.

Their stance seems foreign to many in the Alle-Kiski Valley, notably those who can't believe the group had the audacity to request the New Kensington-Arnold School District remove a Ten Commandments monolith sitting in front of Valley High School.

The foundation's request incensed many area residents, prompting statements from some monument supporters that can be generalized with: "Why don't these cheeseheads go back to their own state?"

At a rally Thursday at the high school, Bobbi Rowe of Arnold asked from where were the anti-monument atheists. Told they're based in Wisconsin, he said, "Oh, I thought it was Mars."

Rowe largely was joking, although his statement reflects a deeply embedded sentiment locally that God is real and deserves a place in all facets of society.

As adamant as believers are about God's existence, there are those who feel just as strongly otherwise and who feel marginalized when they encounter religious symbols seemingly endorsed by schools, the courts and legislative bodies.

"Our goal is to keep religion out of government as is required by the Constitution," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom From Religion Foundation cofounder.

Gaylor and others who take it upon themselves to maintain a clear division between church and state point to the First Amendment's establishment clause as a basis for their argument. When it comes to religious iconography on school property, they quickly cite court decisions that uphold their point of view.

In talking about the country's origins and the language used in the Constitution, Gaylor said, "There is a featured concept: You cannot have this religious freedom without the freedom to dissent. You can't have true religious liberty without freedom from religion in government."

Gaylor's foundation is dedicated to promoting "the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters of nontheism," according to its website.

Founded in 1978, the foundation boasts about 17,000 members "in every state and province," Gaylor said. Membership has tripled since 2005, largely because nonbelief has become more accepted and the foundation has circulated literature and run ads, she said.

From 12 percent to 15 percent of Americans identify as atheists, according to research polls and statistics atheist groups reference.

According to its filings with the IRS, the foundation reported about $2.2 million in income in 2010, largely from member dues and donations.

Beyond paying its 13-member staff, the foundation uses its revenue to print its 10-editions-annually newspaper, "Freethought Today," support a weekly radio program, provide college scholarships and host annual conventions, among other things.

The foundation recently invested in a national advertising campaign. Gaylor said the foundation has run ads during the CBS Evening News and plans for more during "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Gaylor said the foundation represents those who "are most offended, who are most at-risk when the government gets behind religion."

She denied the foundation is "roaming the country looking for violations of state and church separation." Most cases the foundation involves itself in result from people bringing alleged violations to the its attention, she said.

Having been involved in more than 50 lawsuits, Gaylor said the foundation will sue the New Kensington-Arnold School District if district residents sign on as plaintiffs in the case.

That position upsets people such as Jennifer Jack, 26, of New Kensington, a 2007 Valley graduate.

Jack said it bothers her that the foundation takes it upon itself to meddle in communities to which it has no connection.

"Their only mission seems to be to approach and disturb other people," she said. "It almost seems as if they're bullies. If it's in our neighborhood, and we don't have a problem with it, then why get involved?"

According to the foundation, someone visiting Valley High School noticed the monument and brought its existence to the foundation's attention. Foundation officials won't name their tipster.

Jack has organized an online petition through change.org in an effort to rally support among those who want the marker to remain. As of Saturday evening, more than 300 people had signed it.

The Rev. Mitch Nickols of Bibleway Christian Fellowship in New Kensington also is circulating a petition among area churches in support of keeping the monument.

Jack and Nickols said the petitions should add clout to the argument the monument should stay if the issue heads to court.

"It's not like we're plastering the Ten Commandments on kids' lockers telling them to abide," Jack said. "Why is this group causing such an uproar over something it doesn't encounter every day• There are better issues out there to be concerned about -- things that are really hurting society like poverty and a lack of quality education."

"And," she said, "what about the majority opinion in this whole thing?"

Michael Aubele can be reached at maubele@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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