SALT LAKE CITY — A 2,200-member atheist organization plans to hold its annual convention in Salt Lake City next spring.
The 40th annual American Atheist National Convention will be held in Salt Lake City April 17-20 at the Hilton Salt Lake Center downtown. It will feature an assortment of speakers, workshops, training sessions and exhibits aimed at educating participants, cultivating a sense of community among like-minded non-believers and “having fun," said Dave Muscato, public relations director of the organization.
Some of that "fun" will come at the expense of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Muscato said.
“It is our perception that the Mormon Church is interfering with freedom of religion and freedom of speech in Utah by intimidating people,” Muscato said during a telephone interview.
“We’d love to be proven wrong on that, but everything we see and hear about how the Mormon Church controls things in Utah seems to be a prime example of religious oppression,” Muscato said. “They are pushing Mormon values on people. I consider that to be un-American.”
Religious tolerance is one of the core beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its 11th Article of Faith states: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
Tolerance and love has also repeatedly been a theme taught by LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson.
“I admonish you to be good citizens of the nations in which you live and good neighbors in your communities, reaching out to those of other faiths as well as to our own. May we be tolerant of, as well as kind and loving to, those who do not share our beliefs and our standards. The Savior brought to this earth a message of love and goodwill to all men and women. May we ever follow his example,” President Monson said in the April 2013 general conference.
“May we show increased kindness toward one another, and may we ever be found doing the work of the Lord,” he said in the October 2013 general conference.
The most recent PewResearch Religious Landscape Survey indicates that 16 percent of Utahns identify themselves as religiously "unaffiliated," the second highest number in the survey after Mormonism's 58 percent.
Muscato suggested that many of those "unaffiliated" respondents are atheists, but they are afraid to admit it because of church, family and community pressures.
“We want to show them that there is this atheist community that they can be part of,” he said of the conference, which he expects to draw some 1,000 participants. “We want them to feel they can positively identify as an atheist if that’s what they are.”
Muscato said the organization recently tried to begin speaking out by purchasing billboards to advertise the convention, but local billboard companies chose to not provide billboard space.
One of the billboard companies, YESCO, released a statement that said, in part:
“We believe that our medium is an effective outlet for free speech,” said YESCO officials in a prepared statement. “However, we balance that with a strong commitment to adhere to community standards and to ensure that the messages we advertise are not offensive towards any business, group or individual."
A Denver-based company that has billboard availability in Utah eventually agreed to sell advertising space to American Atheists in late December.
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