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Nonreligious activists launch a new secular movement in N.C.

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It's the kind of billboard you'd expect to see in North Carolina during the weeks leading up to the Fourth of July holiday: an image of an American flag with a quote from the Pledge of Allegiance.

But this sign, which sits on Billy Graham Parkway -- a highway named for famed evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham -- is different. It reads: " One Nation Indivisible" -- intentionally leaving out the words "Under God." The North Carolina Secular Association sponsors the billboard, as well as identical billboards in Asheville, Winston-Salem, Raleigh and Wilmington.

"This is a positive message of unity and inclusion for all Americans," Joseph McDaniel Stewart, vice president of FreeThoughtAction -- a national group that focuses on "teaching logic, reason and the scientific method as opposed to unquestioned acceptance of ancient tradition, religion and superstition" -- and founder of the North Carolina Secular Association, said in a press release last Tuesday when the billboards were erected. "It is designed to bring nontheists and theists together as patriots in a shared society."

And while the Charlotte advertisement stands on Billy Graham Parkway, it wasn't placed there on purpose, said William Warren, Charlotte spokesman for the NCSA and a member of the Charlotte Atheists and Agnostics.

"For us, it wasn't a matter of putting it on Billy Graham Parkway to put our finger in someone's eye. It was a matter of what road gets the greatest visibility and had a billboard available for the time that we needed it," Warren said. "We didn't name the road; it just happened to have that name and have the good traffic."

With the campaign, the newly formed organization is hoping to raise its visibility and highlight the regional groups -- including the Charlotte Atheists and Agnostics, Ethical Humanist Society of the Triangle, Forsyth Area Critical Thinkers (FACT) and Forsyth County Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, among other organizations -- that make up the association. "This is the launch of the coalition," said NCSA spokesman Fred Edwords. "This is a brand new association in North Carolina. [Formed a little more than three months ago.] We wanted to get all of these local organizations working together on a single project."

The project -- introducing the coalition with the signs across the state -- was funded through the member groups and FreeThoughtAction, which contributed most of the $15,000 to pay for the billboards. Member groups are not charged to be a part of NCSA and money given to the coalition is done on a voluntary basis, said Edwords.

"Our main function is to let individuals in North Carolina know that if you think like we do, you're not alone. For some people, it's easier [to come out as an atheist] than others. Of course, it is easier in the city than it is in rural areas, as one might expect. Some individuals are more willing to be out because it doesn't affect their employment or anything like that. Whereas there are other individuals who are members of these groups, they find it prudent to not be public about their not being religious. Groups can be more public because they represent individuals," Edwords said, adding that the NCSA gives individual groups the ability to pool their resources and do more in the community.

"Our website [www.ncsecular.org] is more like a clearinghouse for groups around the state. People can go to the site and find a group in their area, get information on what the groups are about." Warren doesn't think that this campaign will force the removal of the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, but what he hopes is that it opens doors and minds.

Despite the group's seemingly positive, community-building goals, North Carolina doesn't exactly have a history of embracing atheists.

The NCSA's billboard in Charlotte, for example, was vandalized last weekend. According to a press release from the group: "The words 'Under God' were [spray painted] below 'One Nation Indivisible,' with an arrow indicating their placement between 'One Nation' and 'Indivisible.'" The police were notified on Sunday and the incident is under investigation.

God's name was also used to protest the election of atheist Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell in December. The state constitution says: "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God" can't hold a public office. So, when Bothwell was elected to the City Council, Asheville resident and former NAACP president H.K. Edgerton balked. He threatened a lawsuit and said his Baptist upbringing leads him to "have problems with people who don't believe in God," according to an Associated Press story published Dec. 12.

In a Dec. 8 story, the Asheville Citizen-Times also reported that "Fliers mailed before the election criticized Bothwell over his atheism and his book, The Prince of War, which denounces evangelist and Montreat resident the Rev. Billy Graham."

The case gained national attention, but never went anywhere because the U.S. Constitution bars a religious test to be a condition of holding a public office. The incident, however, shined an unwanted spotlight on Bothwell's personal life. "The main thing that has occurred," he said, "is that whereas before my religious beliefs were my private beliefs, it suddenly became public."

While Edwords said there will be future campaigns to further raise awareness of NCSA, it probably won't be on this level or this costly. "There will be other campaigns; they will take on a different nature, though," he said. "A lot of things that we can do won't require this drastic nature. For example, there are national occurrences that are becoming popular in the community of atheists -- for example, the National Day of Reason, Darwin Day and National Secular Service Day. We're going to publicize those kinds of things and have groups out in the community. Billboards are the way to get the initial attention, but we expect to be doing things that are far less expensive and more hands on." Edwords said the group will hold functions on Earth Day, during Banned Books Week and observe the winter solstice.

"America and, along with that, North Carolina is changing," said Edwords. "When you can have President Barack Obama mention ... in his inaugural address that this is also a nation of non-believers and major publishers can publish books on our subject, when in the past that wasn't the case, what that tells us is that people are becoming more inclusive and accepting of diversity in American life."

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