Pennsylvania Rep Says That Even Atheists Support His ‘In God We Trust’ Bill. Atheists Respond with a Collective ‘No’

On Sunday, when national political figures normally appear on morning talk shows, Pennsylvania Rep. Rick Saccone appeared on a local show called “Face the State” hosted by reporter Robb Hanrahan.

Rep. Rick Saccone (at podium)

If the name Saccone sounds familiar, it’s probably because he’s the Republican who sponsored legislation to make 2012 the “Year of the Bible,” declared May 3 of that year to be the “National Day of Prayer,” sponsored “National Fast Day” in 2013 (which said we owe our dependence “upon the overruling power of God” and that the only nations that are blessed are the ones “whose God is the Lord”), and — most relevant here — is currently working to put the words “In God We Trust” in every public school in the state.

So Saccone was on “Face the State” to talk about his proposed legislation. And he made some rather indefensible claims…

First, Saccone explained the bill was “bipartisan” (with 17:52 left in the clip), a claim that is technically true but completely disingenuous. He’s referring to the fact that the bill got through the House Education Committee on a 14-9 vote… with a single Republican voting against it and a single Democrat voting for it:

That’s his version of bipartisanship.

Then, Saccone made a remark about how this motto is really for everyone (16:18 remaining):

Saccone: My Muslim friends can look at it and say… what God means to them. My Hindu and Buddhist friends can look at it, my Christian friends, my Jewish friends, can all look at it in their own way and they can interpret it in their own way. So it’s not excluding anyone. It’s actually inclusive, and that’s what the Supreme Court’s ruled.

Hanrahan: What about atheists?

Saccone: Atheists, you know, they look at things their own way, also. They can either interpret that as whatever God that they worship, in the form of, maybe it’s materialism, or something else in life that they look at. I actually talked with the head of the Pennsylvania Atheists who came to me after my last rally and said, “You know what, Rick? I support the bill. I see that it’s historic. And I don’t really have a problem [with it]. I don’t believe in God,” he said, “but I support the bill. It’s a good thing.”

Besides being full of ignorance — atheists worship “materialism”? — there are a couple of other problems:

1) There’s no group called the “Pennsylvania Atheists.”

2) Even if Saccone got the group’s name wrong, not a single atheist group leader in the state says they told him they support the bill.

So did Saccone make this whole thing up? Did he deliberately lie to the host in order to make his bill appear inclusive when it’s anything but?

It looks like it.

Today, in a very even-tempered letter to the media, the heads of the state’s largest atheist organizations point out that they’re all united in opposition to Saccone’s bill — and they’re asking for an apology from Saccone for his misrepresentation of their views:

… Rep. Saccone claimed that “the head of the Pennsylvania Atheists” (a non-existent group) came to him after his last rally offering support for his bill. However, he never identified this person by name and no atheist group leader, to our knowledge, attended that event. We ask Rep. Saccone to name this leader, as we cannot imagine an atheist group leader supporting this clearly divisive bill.

It’s absurd to claim that this bill includes language that is “inclusive.” “In God We Trust” does not represent anyone who does not worship “God.” This includes Buddhists (who do not have a god), Hindus, and many other religions. It also includes atheists, who do not worship any deity. In the program, Rep. Saccone claimed that atheists can make “God” be “whatever god that they worship in the form of maybe it’s [sic] materialism or something else in life that they look at [sic].” This shows an ignorance of atheists generally and is offensive to us specifically because of the misrepresentation of our community as “materialists” or the assumption that we would feel worship is a positive activity. None of us have a “God” to trust, thus this motto does not represent us.

Rep. Saccone knows that there is strong opposition to his bill. His presentation on the program includes gross misrepresentations of our community at the least and we feel he at least owes us an apology. Rep. Saccone should talk to the atheist and secular community to learn our positions before actually representing them to the state at large.

They go on to point out their reasons to oppose the bill:

This bill is divisive. It misuses classroom resources such as money and education time. This bill promotes a specifically religious message. Contrary to what Rep. Saccone claims, nothing in his “In God We Trust” bill is remotely patriotic. It also creates a strong impression that the government supports a particular idea of a “God,” which is not permissible under the First Amendment. Because of the latter, if passed this bill will likely be challenged in court, adding court costs to the list of expenses that our already cash-strapped school districts and ultimately the taxpayers would have to bear.

Finally, the letter is signed by more than a dozen atheist leaders:

Brian Fields — Newville, PA — President, PA Nonbelievers and Co-Chair, Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania

Darren Smith — Center Valley, PA — Vice President, Lehigh Valley Humanists

Paul Tucker — Dillsburg, PA — Organizer, Dillsburg Area Freethinkers

Margaret Downey — Pocopson, PA — Founder and President, Freethought Society

Stephen Hirtle — Pittsburgh, PA — Steel City Skeptics organizer

Timothy and Tina Havener — Lock Haven, PA — Organizers, PA Wilds Freethought Society

Shannon and Linda Turk — Wrightsville, PA — Organizers, PA Nonbelievers

Staks Rosch — Philadelphia, PA — Coordinator, Philadelphia Coalition of Reason

Cathryn Smith — Lebanon, PA — Director, PA Nonbelievers

Janice Rael, Organizer, Philadelphia Atheists Meetup

Scott Rhoades — Lancaster, PA — President, Lancaster Freethought Society and Co-Chair, Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania

There were other leaders who also said they never offered their support to Saccone but who couldn’t publicly sign the letter out of fear of “personal and professional repercussions,” something Saccone ignores when he talks about how everyone just loves his bill.

I’m not surprised that the host, Robb Hanrahan, didn’t know all that to challenge Saccone, but now that Saccone’s lie is out in the open, I think Hanrahan has an obligation to allow some of those atheist leaders on his show next week so they can explain why they oppose this legislation.

If Saccone can’t offer more details about which atheist offered his support to the bill, then he must admit that there is real opposition to his bill and it’s really not as inclusive as he claims.

An apology is the least he could do.

The right thing to do would be the scrap the bill altogether and start doing some work that would benefit all the citizens of the state instead of just the Christian ones.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.