Washington, Nov. 3--Waving U.S. flags and calling themselves one of the last groups in America facing unrestrained bigotry, about 2,000 atheists and other nonbelievers marched on the Mall yesterday to protest what they say is increasing infringement of religion in governmental affairs.

Staging their first Godless Americans March on Washington, the demonstrators said they wanted to show that Americans who do not believe in God or who doubt the existence of a supreme deity comprise a significant part of the population that needs to be taken more seriously. "Ladies and gentlemen, I see a sleeping giant that is waking up and is ready to assert its political and cultural influence," Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, told the protesters as she announced the creation of a "godless" political action committee.

Her audience of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists, dressed warmly against a brisk breeze, cheered and waved signs that expressed disapproval of religion: "God Is a Fairy Tale," "Keep Your Gods Out of Our Schools" and "Al Qaeda is a Faith-Based Initiative."

As the nonbelievers marched from the Washington Monument to Fourth Street NW, where they had their rally, they were followed and sometimes heckled by about 60 Christians who carried signs offering competing messages: "Trust Jesus" and "Turn to Jesus or Burn in Hell."

Throughout the hours-long demonstration, people from both groups engaged in sometimes heated debate, but there were no serious incidents, march organizers said. Johnson, whose organization sponsored the event, said she was happy to see the Christian counter-demonstrators because "it means you're doing something right. . . . If they ignored us, that would tell me we are completely uninfluential."

She and other speaker cited the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey done by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York showing that 14 percent of the population identifies with no religion.

This is a larger group, Johnson noted, than many faith denominations, including Jews and Episcopalians. But because "so many of us are in the closet," she added, views of the nonreligious are not respected. "I want to show people that we are part of the United States and are just like them even though we don't believe in God," said marcher Anne Richardson, 49, a graphic artist from Annandale.

Johnson estimated the crowd at 2,000 to 3,000--larger than anticipated. "We're flabbergasted," she said. "We're delighted, just delighted."

The program included a performance of "All My Idols," a song about becoming an atheist, by the Philadelphia-based pop rock group "overlord," and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance without the words "under God," led by atheist activist Michael Newdow.

In June, a U.S. appellate court panel in California ruled on a suit brought by Newdow that the inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the pledge violated the Constitution's ban of government sponsorship of religion. The ruling is on hold pending an appeal.

Plans for the march provoked criticism from some conservative Christian commentators. In an essay, Paul M. Weyrich, chairman and chief executive of the Washington-based Free Congress Foundation, wrote: "This will be a sad day in my view. And the interest expressed by the 'Godless Americans' in increasing their political activism is something that requires the close attention of social conservatives."

Many in the crowd said they hoped to dismiss the myth that nonbelievers are unpatriotic. Against the backdrop of a huge sign that read "Atheists Bless America," about 100 military veterans were called to the stage to receive a round of applause. Other atheists currently serving sent their support.

Some in the crowd said they were against religion because of the injuries sometimes done in its name. "Look at the Crusades. Look at al Qaeda," said Alexandria resident Joshua Hoover, 28. "Every religious organization has a dark history of persecuting and harming those who don't follow what they believe and preach."

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