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Atheists rally for inclusion at Texas Freethought Convention

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Cori Vandygraff listened intently to speakers like Jessica Ahlquist on the south steps of the Capitol Saturday.

Only a few years apart in age, both share a common bond--they are atheists.

The three-day Texas Freethought Convention attracted more than 450 people like Ahlquist and Vandygraff. They rallied on the south steps of the Capitol Saturday for inclusion. It’s the event’s fifth year.

Ahlquist and Vandygraff both describe a sort of ‘coming out’ to friends and family as an atheist.

"Once you come out, there is no turning back. Everybody looks at you differently. They treat you differently,” Vandygraff said. “It is definitely not a good thing."

Vandygraff lives in Lubbock, where she says Christianity is king.

She's inspired by Alhquist, who challenged her Rhode Island high school for posting a religious banner.

"I wish that I had that sort of bravery,” Vandygraff said. “I am working on it because the culture in Lubbock is so oppressive religiously."

Likewise, Ahlquist says life is still a struggle back home. She recalls the morning after she sued her high school, reciting the Pledge Of Allegiance with her classmates.

"Everybody in the home room turned and screamed, 'under God' at me at the appropriate moment,” Ahlquist said. “I didn't expect it. It was shocking, and I had known these kids for years. To have them all turn against me like that was devastating."

At the rally, renowned scientist Richard Dawkins read aloud what he calls discrimination in the Texas Constitution.

"Nor shall anyone be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a supreme being," he said.

While carrying a political tone, organizers say the convention is meant to let other atheists in Texas know they are not alone. Like civil and gay rights, they hope atheism will be more accepted by mainstream America in the future.

Gallery Images by Develon Douglas/YNN

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