In late September, on her second day of work as the first registered lobbyist in Washington for atheists and other nonbelievers, Lori Lipman Brown, the director of the Secular Coalition for America, was on the phone with a Christian talk show host in California, projecting a kindly tone. “Some people say, ‘I’m praying for you: I hope you find Christ,'” she told the radio audience. “If they believe I’m going to go to hell if I don’t change my belief system, they think they’re doing something very nice for me.” Even so, she said, “we want people to stop denigrating us and putting us down because their belief system is different from ours. Because atheists are so hated in our culture, most atheists don’t let people know they’re atheists…a lot of them stay in the closet.” Brown is working, in essence, for atheist pride, and she compares her battle for the rights of nonbelievers to the gay-rights movement of 30 years ago. “It’s going to take quite a while,” she admits.
Several groups already lobby for separation of church and state. But Brown’s mission is to take on issues the others won’t touch, such as removing references to God from the citizenship oath. Her coalition of five humanist and atheist groups, which organized in response to the post-9/11 upswing in political piety, claims to speak on behalf of the estimated 30 million Americans who either don’t believe in God or have no religious preference.
For now, though, she is armed with little more than idealism, dedication, and the cheery eloquence of a self-described “warm, fuzzy atheist.” Her first-year budget is a modest $100,000, including her salary of roughly $50,000. Her campaign office on the day we met consisted of a long, narrow table in the basement of the American Humanist Association’s town house. On it were perched photos of her husband and dog, and a white cordless phone she’d bought at a CVS drugstore. Her laptop computer hadn’t arrived yet. A dozen plaques—including her law degree and awards honoring her for leading the 1993 effort to repeal Nevada’s sodomy law—were piled up on the makeshift desk.
Brown is the opposite of the angry atheist stereotype created by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was dubbed “the most hated woman in America.” Dressed on that first day in a black pantsuit, the 47-year-old Brown is, above all, nice. With her easy smile and mop of curly black hair, the former Nevada state legislator, high school teacher, and law professor is hardly a D.C. power player. But she’s no pushover either: She once sued a Republican opponent for defamation when he claimed that she didn’t participate in the pledge of allegiance at the statehouse. Of her new job, she says, “We’re not here to convert people, but we want people to be okay with what we want to believe.”
Brown concedes that she needs to be strategic in her lobbying: That afternoon, for example, she joined a coalition lobbying against an amendment allowing faith-based Head Start providers to discriminate on religious grounds. She stayed in the background, letting her Baptist colleagues buttonhole Southern Baptist legislators.
Yet among nonbelievers, her presence was already being noticed. Herb Silverman, the president of the Secular Coalition, reports that hundreds of nonbelievers have already emailed the group saying they are grateful to hear her speaking out. “Their hopes are with her,” he says, “but not their prayers.”