In February of 2000, at the urging of South Carolina activist Herb Silverman, a number of national organizations representing the interests of atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other freethinkers began meeting to explore ways to collaborate for the greater good of the whole nontheistic community.
Silverman, a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the College of Charleston, had run for governor of his state in 1990. Known as "the candidate without a prayer," Prof. Silverman thought it unjust that South Carolina had a law requiring people to assert a religious belief in order to run for public office. Since Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom more than two centuries earlier, Silverman ran for public office in order to see his state's requirement of god-belief struck down as unconstitutional. He lost his bid for governor but was later successful in securing an appointment as notary public (despite South Carolina's attempt to deny even that position to an atheist). Silverman's battle with South Carolina's religious test for public office inspired him to urge nontheistic groups to join in unified purpose, and from 2000-2003 their leaders met as the "Coalition for the Community of Reason."
During these discussions, a number of themes emerged. There was a shared desire to speak with one voice for greater cultural and political influence, a deep and growing concern about theocratic threats to our secular democracy, and the hope of turning widespread misunderstandings about this constituency into greater respect and public acceptance. But while the organizations were generally cohesive in their cultural and political goals, they were often unable to reach consensus about the type of cooperation that would best achieve their shared aims. Some of the groups favored informal alliances on a project-by-project basis, while others pushed for a more structured model.
Secular Coalition for America founded (2002)
On Sunday, November 3, 2002, the morning after the Godless Americans March on Washington, leaders of three of these organizations (the Atheist Alliance International, the Institute for Humanist Studies, and the Internet Infidels) met for breakfast at the Capitol Hilton in Washington, D.C. to set in motion the founding of the Secular Coalition for America (a name the organizations had agreed upon over e-mail in the weeks prior to the meeting). Because of all these groups' status as 501(c)3 educational nonprofits with strict limits on lobbying activities, they made a decision to incorporate the Coalition as a 501(c)4 advocacy organization in order to facilitate, for the first time, unlimited lobbying on behalf of nontheistic Americans. A Corporate Charter was received from the state of Nevada on December 3, 2002 (the Coalition's official "birthday") and in 2003 by-laws were registered, with the Secular Student Alliance as the fourth founding organization. The Internal Revenue Service provided an Employee ID Number in February of 2005.
The first mission statement of the Secular Coalition for America was:
The mission of the Secular Coalition for America is to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints within the larger culture and to protect and strengthen secular government as the best guarantee of freedom for all. As resources allow, we will actively cooperate in projects that support our position, with priority given to political action initiatives and public relations opportunities.
Also adopted was the following position statement:
The Secular Coalition is committed to promoting reason and science as the most reliable methods for understanding the universe and improving the human condition. Informed by experience and inspired by compassion, we encourage the pursuit of knowledge, meaning, and responsible ethical codes without reference to supernatural forces. We affirm the secular form of government as a necessary condition for the interdependent rights of religious freedom and religious dissent. We come together as national freethought organizations to cooperate in areas of mutual interest and to support each other in our efforts to uphold separation between government and religion for the benefit of all within the nontheistic community. As resources allow, we will actively cooperate in projects that support our position, with priority given to political action initiatives and public relations opportunities.
Pre-staff days (2002-2005)
The Coalition operated as a volunteer organization for the first two and a half years of its existence. Employees, board members, and volunteers of the founding member organizations maintained a website, raised funds, and issued action alerts on a number of topics, including the Bush Administration's executive order creating the Faith-Based Initiative, the expulsion of atheist Eagle Scout leader Darrell Lambert from the Boy Scouts of America, and DirecTV's granting of educational public access channels to televangelists.
The Board of Directors, led by president Herb Silverman, continued to meet at least twice a year, laying the foundation for later growth and operations. Advisory board members were selected and individuals within the Washington, DC lobbying community were consulted for guidance.
Office opened, staff hired (2005)
Lori Lipman Brown, a former Nevada State Senator, was hired as the Coalition's first director and lobbyist in September of 2005. Associate director Ron Millar joined the Coalition's staff (initially as legislative associate) two weeks later. The Coalition immediately began a full-time program of Congressional lobbying, media relations, issue research, and outreach. The Coalition also began networking with other public policy and special interest groups in the nation's capital through efforts such as the National Coalition for Public Education and the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination. Staff worked from office space in the American Humanist Association (who joined the Coalition in February 2005) building near the Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan neighborhoods of Washington, DC.
Breaking new ground and building visibility (2006-2008)
In 2006 the Secular Coalition for America published its first Congressional Scorecard grading elected officials according to their roll call votes on issues of importance to Coalition supporters. Only seven members of the House and 18 Senators earned perfect scores for their support of the separation of church and state and the protection of nontheist rights. The seven members of the House with perfect scores were Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Barbara Lee of California, Jim McDermott of Washington, Pete Stark of California, and Lynn Woolsey of California. In addition to voting correctly on the other targeted legislation, these brave representatives voted against federal support of the activities of the discriminatory Boy Scouts of America. Similar legislation was passed in the Senate using the consent calendar, which does not require an individual vote, so the perfect scores given to the 18 Senators were generous.
Building the visibility of secular Americans, the Coalition announced in 2007 the results of a contest to identify the highest-ranking elected official to publicly acknowledge a nontheistic worldview. Rep. Pete Stark of California became the first member of Congress in U.S. history to so declare. The contest also identified State Senator Ernie Chambers of Nebraska, who had attempted to end his legislature's practice of beginning each session with a prayer offered by a state-supported chaplain in the U.S. Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers (1983). Also in 2007, the Secular Coalition for America became the first nontheist organization to be admitted to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). The LCCR is a 501(c)4 legislative advocacy organization with the mission to protect the civil and human rights of all people in the United States.
In 2008, the Secular Coalition for America organized its first Lobby Day event to train citizens from across the country to effectively lobby their elected officials. During the campaign season, the Coalition provided voter education resources through its Secular Values Voter campaign. Rep. Pete Stark, the "Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being," was handily re-elected to his seat in Congress.
New coalition members 2006 to 2008: Society for Humanistic Judaism; Freedom From Religion Foundation; Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers; American Ethical Union; Camp Quest; American Atheists.
Continued growth and transitions (2009-2013)
Director Lori Lipman Brown left the Coalition in January of 2009, and the Secular Coalition continued to grow during the tenures of executive directors Sean Faircloth and Edwina Rogers. In July 2009, Coalition staff (now numbering five employees) moved to its own offices on K Street, the lobbying corridor of Washington DC. Also that year, the Coalition began participating in meetings with White House staff, a development made possible by the more inclusive culture of the Obama Administration. Coalition staff continues to participate in the weekly meetings conducted by the White House Office of Public Engagement.
In 2011, Rep. Pete Stark introduced the National Day of Reason Proclamation, to recognize this inclusive day of service and celebration of reason and religious liberty as an alternative to the exclusive National Day of Prayer, also held the first Thursday of May each year. The Coalition hosted its first intern in 2011. The internship program has been very successful and the interns continue to provide tremendous support to the Coalition's operations and programs.
The Secular Coalition co-sponsored the Reason Rally in 2012. This event, designed to increase the visibility and dispel misconceptions about the secular community, attracted a crowd of approximately 20,000 on the Mall in Washington DC. Elected officials who addressed the group included Rep. Pete Stark and Sen. Tom Harkin. Also in 2012, the Coalition created the 50 State Plan to build state organizations to advocate on state and local issues, as well as to lobby members of Congress in their home districts. In addition to the Congressional Report Cards, the Secular Coalition produced voter guides for the 2012 presidential candidates.
In 2013, the Secular Coalition held briefings in the Capitol building on science with speakers Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, on sex education with Marty Klein and Phil Harvey, and for the launch of the Model Secular Policy Guide. Also that year, the annual Lobby Day event had two sitting members of Congress address the audience, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.
New coalition members 2009 to 2013: Black Nonbelievers; Center for Inquiry; Freethought Society; Hispanic American Freethinkers; Recovering From Religion; Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science; UU Humanist Association. The Internet Infidels submitted a friendly resignation in January 2009 citing their Board's decision to focus exclusively on their primary mission as an Internet library. The Coalition remains indebted to the Infidels for donating the domain name, www.secular.org.
Recent activities (2014-today)
On January 15, 2014, for the first time, the President's proclamation recognizing Religious Freedom Day included the atheist community: "Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics." This continues President Barak Obama's inclusion of the secular community that started with his acknowledgement of "non-believers" in his first inaugural address, another historic first.
Also that year, the Secular Coalition played a key role in introducing legislation to allow Humanist chaplains into the military's chaplaincy corps. Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado introduced the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act and it received 150 votes on the House floor.
Following the Supreme Court's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, the Secular Coalition launched a Knit a Brick Campaign to symbolically rebuild the wall of separation of church and state that this decision breached. In this well publicized campaign, the Coalition was able to assemble a wall of 1,600 bricks made from supporters in all 50 states, which it used in demonstrations before the Supreme Court and the Capitol.
Addressing the audience for the 2014 Lobby Day event were Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, and Rep. Robert Scott of Virginia. The 2015 Lobby Day featured Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, Rep. Michael Honda of California, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, and Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin.
In 2015, Darwin Day resolutions were introduced in both the House and the Senate to designate February 12, Charles Darwin's birthday, as a national day to recognize the importance of science in the betterment of humanity. Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut introduced the House version and Senator Richard Blumenthal also of Connecticut introduced the Senate version. The Coalition's Connecticut chapter was instrumental in obtaining the Senator's sponsorship of this resolution. In the House, Darwin Day resolutions were previously introduced by Rep. Pete Stark in 2011 and Rep. Rush Holt in 2013 and 2014.
Also in 2015, the Secular Coalition initiated its Put Kids First Campaign to engage its state chapters to repeal nonmedical state exemptions to vaccine laws that jeopardize children's safety and public health. This campaign comes on the heels of the victory in California, where the coalition's California chapter helped secure the passage of SB 277, a bill that prohibited all nonmedical exemptions from vaccine requirements. "A crucial part of our mission is ensuring that lawmaker's decisions are guided by the best available science. When it comes to vaccines the science is settled. These loopholes provide unnecessary and dangerous exemptions that privilege belief before children's health," said Kelly Damerow, the Coalition's interim executive director.
The Secular Coalition for America has successfully become the national advocate for secular values and the secular community. With 17 member organizations, many more endorsing organizations, and a support base of thousands more individuals unaffiliated with these groups, the Coalition represents agnostics, apatheists, atheists, brights, freethinkers, humanists, naturalists, rationalists, secularists, and skeptics. Its constituency includes the religiously unaffiliated as well as congregational forms of humanism such as ethical culture and humanistic Judaism. Also welcome are nontheistic participants in religious congregations (including but not limited to Unitarian Universalism and the Society of Friends). Through its member organizations the Coalition is charged with advocating for individuals, families, students, military personnel, secular nonprofits dedicated to serving nontheists (both national, state and local), and noncreedal religious organizations. The Coalition speaks in a unified way for the diverse constituency of nontheistic Americans.