In February of 2000, at the urging of a South Carolina activist named 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 later was 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)
At 7:00 a.m. 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, naming the Secular Student Alliance as the 4th 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, adopted over e-mail and published on an introductory Web site prior to the 2002 founding meeting, was as follows:
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.
[This statement was later shortened and edited for grammar to its current form.]
Also adopted and published prior to the founding meeting was a 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 (2002-5)
The Coalition operated as a volunteer organization for the first 2 1/2 years of its existence. Employees, board members, and volunteers of the founding member organizations maintained a Web site, 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 August 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, 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 building near the Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan neighborhoods of Washington, DC.
New members admitted: American Humanist Association (February).
In 2006 the Secular Coalition for America published its first Congressional scorecard, grading elected officials according to their roll call votes on issues of concern to Coalition supporters.
New members admitted: Society for Humanistic Judaism (January); Freedom From Religion Foundation (February).
In 2007 the Secular Coalition for America became the first nontheist organization to be admitted to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). That same year, the Coalition announced the results of a contest to identify the highest-ranking elected official to publicly acknowledge a nontheistic world view. Rep. Pete Stark of California became the first Congressperson in U.S. history to so declare.
New members admitted: Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (February).
More about 2007: Year-end report
In 2008 the Secular Coalition for America organized its first Lobby Day event. During the campaign season, the Coalition provided voter education resources through its dedicated Secular Values Voter Web site. (Rep. Pete Stark, the "Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being," was handily re-elected.)
New members admitted: American Ethical Union (April).
Director Lori Lipman Brown left the Coalition to pursue other interests in January of 2009. Ron Millar served as acting director until June, when Sean Faircloth, a former Maine legislator, was brought on as executive director. In July, Coalition staff (now numbering five employees) moved to its own offices on K Street, the lobbying corridor of Washington. Also in 2009, the Coalition began participating in meetings with White House staff, a development made possible by the more inclusive culture of the Obama Administration.
New members admitted: Camp Quest (January); American Atheists (June).
Member resignation: Internet Infidels (January). [The Infidels submitted a "friendly" resignation citing their Board's decision to focus exclusively on their primary mission as an Internet library. They continue to link to the Coalition on the front page of their heavily-trafficked Web site, and the Coalition remains indebted to the Infidels for donating our domain name, www.secular.org.]
New member admitted: Council for Secular Humanism (January).
In the years since its founding in 2002, the Coalition has grown to ten member organizations and coalesced a support base that spans all fifty United States and dozens of foreign countries.
The Secular Coalition for America is the only national coalition ever assembled to advocate for secular values and individuals. With ten member organizations, many more endorsing organizations, and a support base of thousands more individuals unaffiliated with these groups, it is also the largest and broadest advocacy movement for nontheistic Americans of any label. 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 and local), and noncreedal religious organizations. The Coalition speaks in a unified way for the diverse constituency of nontheistic Americans.