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History of the ACA

In April of 1996, Kellen Von Houser contacted a few local atheists by e-mail. She proposed getting together at some centrally located eatery for the purpose of discussing atheism. Some time later, she placed an advertisement in the back of The Chronicle. That small ad attracted the attention of a number of atheists, many of whom became very active in the group. ACA exists because of one woman's desire to end her atheist isolation and meet other atheists, and because of her willingness to work for it with her own time and money. Spike Tyson, director of American Atheists, also contacted local members and let them know about the new local group.

The group met at the Hot Jumbo Bagelry on the corner of West Fifth and Lavaca in downtown Austin. Things remained very informal for a number of months. In April and May there were about 12-14 people present, mostly members of American Atheists.

Early on, an Atheist e-mail discussion group was set up. This allowed atheists who couldn't make it to the bagel shop meetings a chance to engage in intelligent, reality-based conversation. By September however, meetings were down to only 8-10 people. Although 25-30 people had been attending meetings that summer, the disorganization and difficulty in hearing others talk in the bagelry must have frustrated many who showed up. Howard Thompson and Kellen discussed giving the meetings more structure so people knew what to expect. The group needed a "greeter", (Keith Berka started it right from the first), identification of who showed up, a newsletter, business time, and social/discussion time. It was decided that at least a semi-formal group structure was needed and planning for more formally establishing the group commenced.

One of the first tasks was the naming of the group. The choices were narrowed down to: Atheist Community of Austin, Atheist Society of Austin, and Capital City Atheists. The name Atheist Community of Austin won by a landslide.

Through the efforts of Rodney Florence and others, Austin Mayor Todd signed our proclamation of November 21 1996 proclaiming November 22 - 29, 1996 as Give Thanks for State/Church Separation Week in Austin. While ACA itself cannot endorse candidates or political parties, a number of our members have become active in the political process. ACA has also taken part in a number of marches and walks to support civil liberties and other worthy causes.

On December 15th, 1996, twenty-one Austin area atheists gathered at the Hot Jumbo Bagelry for our 10:30 A.M. weekly Sunday meeting to establish our group as the: ATHEIST COMMUNITY OF AUSTIN. Our little ceremony included a brief speech, comments from each member, the reading of our Declaration of Intent, the signing of our Declaration and a toast. We now had about 30 members showing up during a month. Our newsletter was going out to about 60 Austin area atheists.

During the Sunday, February 1st meeting, the group approved the preamble (Statement of Purpose) of the ACA charter. Diane Mankedick, Jeff Dee, Howard Thompson, Cyndi Miller, Keith Berka, and others worked on the preamble. As of February 10th 1997, our small group was recognized by the Secretary of the State of Texas as the Atheist Community of Austin Inc. A Steering Committee, headed by Howard Thompson, began to meet to hammer out the organizational details. A separate Charter Committee was approved by the steering committee to write our charter. Our charter, constitution, and bylaws took some time to complete as many people had strong feelings as to how these important documents should be worded. Eventually consensus was reached and our charter and constitution were voted on and adopted in May of 1997. Don Rhodes and Kellen Von Houser served as the groups first Co-Coordinators and initial board members under the new charter.

If there are two things atheists like doing, they're reading and talking. It seems that many people come to the Bagelry armed with magazines, books and newspaper clippings to share with the group. To assist atheists in finding reading material, we established a lending library. Over the years it has been growing steadily. The Oral History Project is our effort to record the histories of atheists. It's important to our stories be recorded.

By June of 1997, we had our web site. On it, internet surfers could find links to many other atheist sites. Eventually, a questionnaire was added as well as the newsletter. Now the newsletter, "The atheist", including any images it may contain, can be downloaded as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file.

On October 17 1997, our cable access television show The Atheist Experience made its debut. One of the important features of the show was the live call-in format. Ray Blevins, the host of the show, was willing to take a chance on this highly unpredictable format. He was joined by co-host Joe Zamecki. At first the show was only an hour long and aired live every other Sunday. In September of 1998, the show was extended by half an hour. In December of 1999, the show began going out over the internet. Now anyone in the world with a computer could watch our show.

As with any new organization, we had our growing pains too. During the spring of 1998 our board of directors worked through its process for making formal decisions. Generally, we have tried to reach general consensus.

Also in the spring of 1998, ACA joined the Atheist Alliance and the board began discussing the possibility of hosting the 1999 convention here in Austin. Don Rhoades had attended the '98 Atheist Alliance convention in St. Louis, and asked to take on the responsibility of being the event organizer. Assisting Don in this massive effort were Mary Osborne and Kellen Von Houser.

In early 1999, the board considered becoming affiliated with American Atheists. There was a lot of discussion and considerable disagreement as to the value of becoming an American Atheist affiliate. It was decided to run both a pro and a con essay in "The Atheist" and then leave the matter up to the general membership in a special meeting. The membership of ACA voted overwhelmingly not to affiliate with the American Atheist organization.

On the first weekend after the first full moon after the spring equinox in 1999, ACA hosted the Atheist Alliance convention. Don Rhoades and Mary Sue Osborne were assisted by a number of ACA members including Keith Berka, Vie Farrow, Maria Laudenslager, and many others. The event was held at the Omni Hotel in downtown Austin. The theme of the convention was 'Positive Atheism.' A number of well known atheist authors as well as some of our own members gave workshops. Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation spoke at the banquet and played some of his freethought songs for us. The convention was a success, and it placed the ACA clearly on the map as an important organization.

In May of 1999, Kellen Von Houser and Don Rhoades stepped down co-leaders. In our annual election, John Koonz and Susan Brown were elected as new co-leaders. This transition, as well as others within the group, went smoothly. During the summer of 1999, the board surveyed the membership as to what direction ACA should take. There were a number of good ideas offered up.

Members of the ACA participated in the Texas State Board of Education textbook hearings in 2003, thus helping to keep Intelligent Design out of science textbooks in the state. Unfortunately, our efforts in 2005 to keep contraceptive information in the health textbooks were not successful.

Looking back to 2004, one of the ACA's more notable accomplishments was our participation in a "friend of the court" brief for the Supreme Court in the Michael Newdow pledge case. While his case was thrown out on a frustrating technicality, he will likely be back before the Supreme Court on the pledge issue in the next few years. Perhaps we can re-file the brief for that case when it happens. ACA member Jeff Dee was a major contributor to the brief on the ACA's behalf.

Also in 2004, the ACA hosted the Texas Atheists and Agnostics Conference for atheists and agnostics from across the state. Our keynote speaker was Michael Newdow.

During 2005, we revamped our bylaws making them more solid for the future. Also this year, our Non Prophets radio show and Atheist Experience TV show began podcasting their audio content to the world. These shows now have listeners from all over the world.

With new members all the time, many think that the time has come for us to find our own building. Our building fund has been growing for some time. What direction will we take? That largely depends on what you want to see happen. ACA is driven by it's members. If you have an idea, then don't be shy. Let's hear it!

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