An uncomfortable admission

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Roane County commissioner deals with being an atheist in a Christian community

Roane County Commissioner Steve Kelley had intended to keep his mouth shut over a proposal to post “In God We Trust” at the courthouse in Kingston.

“It’s going to pass,” his wife, Renee, counseled her husband. “Don’t say anything.”

As the proposal was debated in June, Kelley could no longer hold back. When other commissioners questioned him about his opposition, he admitted that he is an atheist — he doesn’t believe in God.

“They just didn’t seem to understand there might be a different point of view,” Kelley said.

There was an uncomfortable exchange as other commissioners came to grips with his admission.

Commissioner Fred Tedder told him he didn’t believe there’s such a thing as an atheist.

“Well, you’re looking at one,” Kelley shot back.

“The Bible says you’re a fool,” Tedder responded.

Another commissioner questioned Kelley when he quoted a passage from the Bible about praying in private. When it came down to a vote at the July commission meeting, Kelley cast the lone vote against the proposal.

And now the commissioner from Oak Ridge is dealing with his public admission — one that, according to Tennessee’s constitution, could keep him from serving in office.

“It’s very uncomfortable to tell people — at least in this region — that you’re not a believer,” he said.

Renee, who is a Christian, has seen the reaction to her husband’s lack of faith: “You can see them stiffen, and some of them won’t associate with us,” she said.

Her husband refers to what happened at the June meeting as his “coming out” as an atheist.

That’s a phrase usually associated with people who decide to admit they have a sexual orientation for a same gender.

Kelley said he anticipates the same kind of ostracization and hostility with his atheism.

“I’m not a bad person,” he said.

But so far, aside from the reaction of some commissioners, one phone call to his home and some comments on online community bulletin boards, the reaction has been positive.

He has had calls of support from people praising his courage for trying to keep government and religion separate.

Some told him they wanted to speak up, but feared retaliation against their families.

There were anonymous comments on an online bulletin board referring to Tennessee’s constitutional language forbidding atheists from serving in office.

Whether a challenge will come is anyone’s guess.

Renee, who prays for her husband regularly, has her own thoughts.

“I think it would really be unChristianlike thing to do when they know he’s a good man,” she said. “Sometimes, he’s more Christianlike than I am.”

Even Tedder, the commissioner who quoted scripture calling Kelley a “fool,” said he is a good commissioner.

“I still like him and and I respect him, except for that one little thing,” Tedder said.

Tedder said he’d picked up on Kelley’s beliefs before his public admission, and said his lack of faith might be attributed to his higher education.

“That’s one of the first things they teach you in college,” he said. “That there is no God and in evolution.”

Kelley said he believes that, like him, many atheists have been to church and have tried to believe in God and the promise of an afterlife. But they can’t fight the truth about their conclusions.

Even so, they have raised their children in a Christian household and have participated in activities involving faith.

Most recently, they have been involved in the Ulster Project, in which Protestant and Catholic teenagers from religiously fractured Northern Ireland are brought to America.

Staying with host families, the teenagers participate in a host of activities to help break down barriers, prejudices and bigotry.

The Kelleys were a host family.

The Kelleys religiously mixed marriage might baffle some, but it works for them.

“We know we each have reasons for believing the way we do,” Steve said. “The bottom line really is the respect.”

Renee is proud of her husband and stands by him on the courthouse plaque issue was based on the separation of church and state and the freedom of belief.

National columnist Charles C. Haynes is an expert on the First Amendment, which entails free speech and freedom of religion, among other rights.

He said the right to believe in no god is as protected under the U.S. Constitution as the freedom to worship as you see fit.

“Religious liberty isn’t just for the religious,” Haynes says.

Renee takes things a step further when it comes to her husband.

“Just because his belief is different doesn’t make him less moral, less of a citizen,” she said.