The great thing about America is you can believe anything you want. Your citizenship and your feelings about our country are totally separate from your spiritual life as they should be. Though, there's at least one group, and probably more, in Charlotte that aren't nearly as well known as the crown-looking church in South Charlotte or the robber baron Bishop in West Charlotte, and they're definitely not as well known as Charlotte's beloved Billy Graham.
Their beliefs, however, are valid, and their right to express their beliefs is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. And now, after outing themselves with a mildly controversial billboard on Billy Graham's big road a move that garnered them both death threats and new members, they're ready to talk about what it really means to be an atheist in the Queen City, and how they aim to participate from here forward.
Up to now, the 11-year-old Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics has been a pretty quiet bunch. But members thought it was time to raise their visibility and let Charlotte know that non-believers are also part of this community.
That's not to suggest, they say, that they're a militant, in-your-face crowd looking to pick fights in Billy Graham's hometown. In fact, they're the ones who feel under attack. And, mostly, they treasure these monthly gatherings - and their atheist picnics, book club and volunteer efforts - as a safe way to do things while surrounded by people who share their outlook.
Putting up the billboard with an American flag background just before the Fourth of July was bold, but its message was subtle: Instead of saying "One Nation under No God," it read "One Nation Indivisible" - a line from the original Pledge of Allegiance before God was added in the 1950s.
"We didn't want anything aggressive," says Molly, vice president of the group, which is part of a coalition that also put up billboards in five other N.C. cities. "We wanted a seat at the table. And we wanted people to know that you can be patriotic and not a Christian."
They point out that the N.C. Constitution singles out atheists. Though it's no longer enforced, the state constitution still has a provision that says any person "who shall deny the being of Almighty God" cannot hold public office.
"Imagine being so different from everybody that when you reveal you're an atheist, it's like painting a big target on yourself," Craig says. "We hear: 'You're not welcome here' and 'We don't want you here.'"