Atheists granted booth at festival

  • Thursday, February 14, 2013

A group of “atheists, agnostics, skeptics and other freethinkers” will have a booth at the Flowertown Festival after the threat of a lawsuit might have helped move their application from the reject pile to the accepted pile.
The Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry submitted an application in December to rent a booth at the annual festival held by the Summerville Family YMCA.
The YMCA rents booths to artisans – about 200 last year – and to businesses and civic groups – about 150 in 2012.
The Humanists wanted to be part of the festival to let other like-minded individuals know there’s a “vibrant community” in the Charleston area and “to put a human face with the label atheist because the atheist label has such a negative connotation,” said Amy Monsky, the group’s president.
The Humanists and the YMCA agree the group’s initial application was rejected, but they don’t agree on why.
“We never said we would deny the group because they were not Christian. That’s not true,” said CEO Gary Lukridge.
But Monsky said her conversation with a staff member played out differently.
She called shortly before the application deadline to get details on what groups could do at their booths, and at the end of the conversation asked if it would be a problem for her atheist group to apply.
She said she was told it wouldn’t be OK.
“Her tone had definitely changed at that point,” Monsky said.
When she pointed out the YMCA’s website lists as qualifications only that a group have inclusive membership and support community building, she was told she could apply and let the jury decide.
“It is true that they didn’t specifically say we are denying you because of your atheism,” Monsky said, but it’s also true she was told it would be useless to apply.
Lukridge said the group was rejected because the YMCA didn’t have enough information about them.
After reviewing the application and what the Humanists were going to be doing, the YMCA decided to reverse the rejection, he said.
Monsky said the YMCA didn’t contact her for additional information. In fact, her emails to the organization asking for an explanation of the rejection were ignored, she said.
She called the American Humanist Association for advice, and the association wrote a letter to the YMCA on behalf of the local group.
Then, she said, the association’s legal center filed notice with the S.C. Human Affairs Commission that it intended to file a federal lawsuit.
“It was within days that we got the congratulations,” she said, an email notifying her the group had been accepted after all.
In a press release, Lukridge said that with “prayer, deliberation and conferring with legal counsel,” the YMCA decided to allow the group.
“The YMCA does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, color, religion or national origin and we accept people of all faiths.  Our mission is to be a community cornerstone that puts Christian principles into practice through programs that build a health spirit, mind and body for all,” the press release said.
In an interview, Lukridge reiterated the organization doesn’t discriminate.
“We are about acceptance. We’re about helping all people,” he said.
Monsky said her group will hand out information about its programs and show that atheists are part of the community.
When people find out she’s an atheist, they inevitably say they’ve never met an atheist before, she said.
What they don’t realize is they probably have, Monsky said.
“We’re your neighbors, we’re your friends, we’re your co-workers. And … we’re not scary,” she said.
This year’s Flowertown Festival is scheduled for April 5-7.
With the atheist argument settled, the festival now faces its greatest question: will any azaleas still be in bloom by April 5?

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