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Atheists Have A Lobbyist, Too

By Sarah Mirza of the CBS News Political Unit

It's quite possibly the last special interest group to establish a voice in Washington. The Secular Coalition for America has hired Lori Lipman Brown as its congressional lobbyist and national voice. Brown's main job? To educate the public about mistaken notions regarding atheists while making sure religion doesn't get a ringside seat at issue debates.

"My beef is with people who have taken [religion] out of the 'sacred' sphere and used it instead as a political tool," Brown told "Having done that denigrates religion."

In today's climate of piety, when the president unabashedly uses religious imagery in his speeches and touts a Supreme Court nominee as a woman of faith, the new lobbyist in town has an uphill battle to change the spiritual status quo.

"She's really swimming against the political tide," Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Thomas Mann said. "The Republicans are committed to promoting religion in life and see religious people as their base."

The Democrats, Mann said, have been "tainted as the party of secularism" and are trying to change that image.

Brown started her new job in mid-September with a flurry of hot-button social issues roaming the national landscape, from staples like same-sex marriage and abortion to new ones like a federal trial dubbed "Scopes II," which looks at a school board's mandate that "intelligent design" be taught in Dover, Pennsylvania.

Brown plans to monitor several issues closely, including stem cell research, access to emergency contraception, physician-assisted suicide, school vouchers and faith-based initiatives. But her first foray into federal lobbying focused on an issue that caught the eye and ire of Brown: an education reauthorization bill that passed last month.

The House reauthorized Head Start with a controversial provision allowing faith-based organizations that run Head Start programs to hire teachers using religious preference as a qualification. Brown calls the provision "religious discrimination" and has joined the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Interfaith Alliance and the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, among other church-state separation groups, to lobby the Senate to strike out any religion-based hiring provisions.

"When you give my federal tax dollars to a religious institution, you're freeing up other money for religious activities," Brown said.

The Secular Coalition for America is a non-profit political organization for Atheist Alliance International, Secular Student Alliance, Institute for Humanist Studies and other groups that do not believe in a deity. Private donations fund the umbrella group and are earmarked for administrative purposes to run the two-person office. Brown brings to Washington her experience as a state senator in Nevada, a self-described budget hawk and "secular Jew."

The White House has floated whispered assurances of Harriet Miers' strong religious convictions among Christian leaders, and although it didn't quiet complaints from the Republican faithful, Brown had more proof that atheists and non-believers are treated unfairly.

"As we now watch a Supreme Court [nominee] being touted as the right person for the highest judicial court in the nation because of her religion, there's no doubt now that people who are not religious are clearly discriminated against in terms of being looked at as fit for higher office," Brown said.

Brown has strong convictions when it comes to keeping religion out of government. She would like to spread the word that even people without religion have morals. Brown believes the secular people her group represents can work side by side with religious people.

"We don't have to share beliefs," Brown said.