In two separate events this weekend, Washington, D.C. will see a flood of protesters who say their beliefs and values are under attack in America: religious conservatives on Friday and then secularists and atheists the next day.
The scheduling was a strange coincidence, protest organizers say.
The Stand Up For Religious Freedom event will be held Friday in dozens of locations across the country — noon local time for all. It was prompted by the White House’s announcement earlier this year that many faith-based organizations would not be exempt from the new health care law and its mandatory coverage of contraception and other reproductive services. The rally is being organized by pro-life organizations and appears to be mostly Catholics, whose bishops have been the most vocal and visible critics of the mandate.
This is the first protest since the term “religious freedom” has come to be shorthand for problems some religious conservatives have with the Obama-backed health care law.
The Reason Rally, slated for the Mall on Saturday, is billed as the biggest gathering of atheists and other secular advocates. This movement is a quilt of groups who in the past have squabbled over language and goals: Are they simply focused on church-state separation? Rights and acceptance of the Godless? Are they atheists or non-believers?
Herb Silverman, a leader of the movement, says the rally symbolizes a new phase of unity. The groups are modeling themselves on the Religious Right and its huge success at setting asides theological differences (say, between conservative Catholics and Protestants) to focus on shared agenda items, such as opposing abortion and the removal of prayer in public schools.
“We want people to come out of the closet and show people we can be good without God,” said Silverman, who successfully sued in his home state of South Carolina to eliminate a ban on atheists holding public office.
An eclectic mix of people are scheduled to address the rally, including Bill Maher and U.S. Rep. Pete Stark, who according to Silverman is the only member of Congress who has said he does not believe in God.
“We don’t out anyone, but we know of 27 other members of Congress who are atheist or agnostic, but they are afraid to say so,” he said.
Some longtime atheist-watchers say the rally will force a movement whose advocates say they represent tens of millions of Americans to cough up their numbers.