The Godless Voice on Capitol Hill

Lori Lipman Brown is the first registered lobbyist in Washington dedicated to atheists and other nonbelievers.

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.

Lori Lipman Brown"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.

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"We're not here to convert people, but we want people to be okay with what we want to believe."

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.

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