by Paul Bowers
When S.C. legislators return to the Statehouse in January, they will find a new interest group waiting in the lobby: the Secular Coalition for South Carolina, a nontheistic organization that aims to uphold the separation of church and state.
On Sunday, during the weekend-long Carolinas Secular Conference at the Charleston Marriott, the Secular Coalition for America will officially launch its second state chapter, part of an effort to establish chapters in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico by the year's end (the first state chapter launched in Colorado in July). Amy Monsky of Summerville will be a co-chair of the group along with Matthew Facciani of Columbia. Funding will come from the national organization, Monsky says.
"In general, what we want to do is make sure that all laws are religiously neutral, so that religion doesn't get a privilege, so that there are no exemptions for religious people or institutions that aren't available to everybody," Monsky says. "We want to create an equal playing field where every citizen has the freedom of conscience and belief."
The group will focus its lobbying on the Statehouse, and one of the first orders of business will be to build relationships with senators and representatives. Monsky says the group might meet resistance in the Bible Belt state, but she remains hopeful about making inroads in Columbia. "I'm optimistic that as part of such a large national organization, we'll be taken seriously," Monsky says. "It's shown in studies that the nonreligious are gaining in numbers and that we're not just some tiny minority that can be marginalized."
In a 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 86 percent of South Carolinians said they believe in God with absolute certainty. 72 percent of South Carolinians said they pray once a day, and 54 percent said they attend religious services once a week. On the question of belief, South Carolina came in second only to Mississippi.
Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, said in a press release Thursday that state chapters would play a role at the national level as well. ""In our current U.S. Congress, 38 percent of representatives held local office first," Rogers said. "When we get to lawmakers at the local level, not only are we going to help curb some of the most egregious legislation we're seeing, but we are also building relationships and working to educate legislators on our issues before they even get to Washington."