Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers protest Family Leadership Summit

Protestors of the 2014 Family Leadership Summit gathered outside of Stephens Auditorium to protest the topics that were being discussed and encouraged. The summit took place Aug. 9 at Stephens Auditorium.

Max Dible

The Family Leader, which put on The 2014 Family Leadership Summit at Iowa State’s Stephens Auditorium in Ames, handed out a pamphlet to those who attended Aug. 9.

The pamphlet stated, “Bringing conservatives together for education, motivation and inspiration!”

However, it was not only conservatives that the summit inspired to organize and congregate Aug. 9.

A contingent of two to three dozen people, most affiliated with the group Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, gathered on a patch of lawn across from Stephens Auditorium. They protested what they viewed as the summit’s stand on the separation of church and state as well as the influence of religion in politics.

“Our goal is to raise awareness to all Iowans that religion in government is harmful,” said Jason Benell, public relations and communications officer for the group. “It is not only harmful for people who are not religious, but also for people who are [religious] because when…politicians come through and proclaim that their faith drives policy, that means less freedom for everyone.”

Benell described the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers as a social and educational group as well as a nonprofit organization while stressing that it is not a political action committee.

The president of the Family Leader, the organization hosting the summit that Benell and company were protesting, is Bob Vander Plaats. He addressed the presence of the protestors earlier in the week.

“We will love them, as we did a year ago,” Vander Plaats said. “We will offer them food and water or anything else they need. We celebrate the opportunity for free speech and free expression.”

Benell said that save for the occasional snide remark, most of the protest opposition was harmless and that many people were respectful on both sides.

In the introduction of the pamphlet handed out to all summit participants, Vander Plaats stated that the conference was about “leading with principle over politics.”

He went on to describe the experience of the summit as one that would inform on “the immoral debt we are passing on to our children, religious freedom, life, free market principles, marriage and the Constitution.”

John Fruetel, a computer programmer from Newton, Iowa, is the president of the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers. He explained that it was important that the group has a presence Aug. 9 because of the message being put out by Vander Plaats and the other speakers at the conference, which included Sen. Rick Santorum, U.S. Rep. Steve King, Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst, among many others.

“They are not interested in separation of church and state. They obviously want to impose their particular view of morality on the rest of us whether we like it or not,” Fruetel said. “Their definition of family is wrong. Families are defined by love, not by religious dogma. We just want people to know this is where we stand and not all Iowans appreciate what they are doing.”

Others who attended the summit as participants, like Ron Telecky of Mount Vernon, Iowa, had a different view on the issue of the separation of church and state.

“Church and state were never separated,” Telecky said. “The separation of church and state means that government would never impose on the people which church to belong to, but they were never conceived as separate entities. People of faith or people without faith are free and should be free to get involved in the [shaping] of their culture.”

Another point of contention was how one keeps religious inclinations out of politics and whether it was right or possible to do so. 

Dan Downs, a banker from State Center, Iowa, attended the summit for the first time in 2014.

“Church is a community of like-minded people who have ethics and morals as an overriding system of order in life, and that applies to which political leaning you will have,” Downs said. “So [politics mixed with religion] is not a blurring of church and state. Everyone has a system of beliefs that will influence their political leanings.”

All of the subsequent discussions came back to one issue, which was the main focus of the summit: family values.

“The [Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers] believe that love is what defines a family — not faith — and you do not need religion in order to have a good family,” Benell said. “Particularly, you do not need to be a Christian to have a good family, which is the overall message that we see from these Republicans.”