A national group is seeking volunteers to lobby Oklahoma lawmakers to oppose religiously based measures, which have been on the increase since Republicans gained control of the Legislature four years ago.
“Some of the most egregious examples of attempts to insert religion into government are happening at the state level,” said Lauren Anderson Youngblood, spokeswoman for the Secular Coalition for America. “We know that Oklahoma has had some bills that we would consider to be unacceptable.”
The nonprofit group was formed 10 years ago to lobby Congress, she said. Chapters have been formed in 38 states since June; Oklahoma is among the remaining 12 states where chapters are being started.
“The separation of religion and government was set up to protect nonreligious and religious people,” she said. “This is really an issue that we see as nonpartisan, an issue that is one of the core founding principles of our country. It's not an issue that is hostile to religion. We're not telling people that they just don't have the right to their religious beliefs. We're not trying to convert anyone to atheism. We're just simply saying (religion) has no place in our government.”
When faith matters
Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, who has written legislation that would have allowed public school teachers the freedom to teach various conflicting theories without the fear of losing their jobs, said she supports separation of religion and government, but it's difficult to separate a lawmaker's faith.
“One's faith, they don't leave it at the doorstep of the Capitol when they walk in,” she said. “Faith is what guides us in any decision we make. To live one way, to say your faith, your beliefs … in one area of life and not in the other — that's hypocrisy.”
Her measure, House Bill 1551, failed to win approval the past two years. She said the bill was not intended to bring religious beliefs, such as creationism, into the classroom. Critics said otherwise.
“Everybody has convictions and opinions,” Kern said. “Those should guide our lives. A religious conviction is something that you don't lay aside outside the Capitol. When you look at Oklahoma, we are a people strongly committed to faith. Laws always follow faith and morality. To deny the people of Oklahoma their legislators being able to live by their convictions and exercise their faith when they sit at their desks is hypocritical and ridiculous.”
Youngblood said she hopes volunteers will be in place by the time next year's session starts in early February. No specific legislative agenda has been set for the Oklahoma chapter yet.
“We really need people at the state level that can lobby the lawmakers to prevent some of this stuff from being adopted,” she said. “These will be citizens that will be trained on lobbying and they will be responsible for lobbying their state government and for formulating this chapter.”
In general, the secular coalition focuses on legislation that attempts to insert religion, religious privileging, or religiously based discrimination into laws, or uses taxpayer funding to support or promote religion or religious beliefs.
Kern said she respects the secular coalition's right to form a lobbying chapter.
“We live in America,” she said. “But the distinction is: What do we mean by religion? An organized church is what our Founding Fathers meant. They never intended to divorce one's faith from any area of life.
“When our Founding Fathers said Congress should make no laws respecting religion or prohibiting the free establishment thereof, they were talking about an organized church, that government was not to endorse an organized church,” said Kern, a former social studies teacher in the Oklahoma City School District. “They never intended that one faith, regardless of what that faith is, would not influence their lives.
“I don't want any particular church to be in control of my government, nor do I want any government to be in control of any church,” she said. “But one's personal faith, if it's real, will impact every area of their life.”
Volunteers in the state chapter would lobby legislators to support a strong separation of religion and government, Youngblood said. Those interested can call (530) 881-1499 and give the participant access code of 978895. The call is at noon Wednesday. An audio recording of the call will be posted later on the group's website, www.secular.org.
Volunteers will be provided with a website and other materials, Youngblood said. Eventually, the group would like to expand its effort and have at least two staff members in every state.
The secular coalition represents 11 member organizations and nontheistic Americans, Youngblood said. About 40 million Americans don't identify with any religion.
“We represent nontheists but we really see what we're doing as protecting our core constitutional founding principles, something that affects all Americans on leaving the separation of religion and government as the best guarantee of freedom for all Americans, including religious people,” Youngblood said. “Our chapters are not open only to nontheists. There are many, many people out there who do have a belief in God, who do consider themselves to be religious, that agree with us that religion has no place in government. And those people are absolutely welcome to join the chapter as well.”
AT A GLANCE
Legislation taken up during this year's Oklahoma legislative session that would have drawn opposition from Secular Coalition for America includes:
Senate Resolution 62
• Reaffirms support for traditional marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Senate Bill 1433
• The personhood bill, which defines life as beginning at conception.
House Concurrent Resolution 1024
• Declares the official motto of the state to be “Oklahoma — in God We Trust.”
House Bill 2460
• Expands religious refusal laws for health care providers.