SALT LAKE CITY -- Leaders of a national atheist group say the best spot to find a nonbeliever is in a place of faith.
To that end, the American Atheists, in an effort to raise awareness and attract new members, are holding their annual conference over Easter weekend in the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
They say the church’s large influence in Utah has made atheists in the state reluctant to speak about religious doubts for fear of being shunned. Atheist group leasers also criticize the LDS influence as having overstepped its boundaries in areas of public policy.
"Religious morality is dictating the Legislature. That’s unconstitutional, and that’s why we’re fighting this fight," atheist spokesman Dave Muscato said, speaking against the state’s ban on gay marriage.
Mormon culture dominates Utah, and the effect can be seen in the state’s strict liquor laws and overwhelmingly conservative politics. About 60 percent of residents and about 4 in 5 Utah lawmakers identify as Latter-day Saints.
Many residents view the church’s influence as responsible for what they consider a "pro-family" atmosphere that makes the state attractive, a University of Utah professor says.
The state prioritizes children, education and good health, said Don Herrin, who teaches family studies.
The expansiveness of Mormon principles can be seen as "an achievement of something that is valued in the culture," Herrin said.
The head of an LDS anti-defamation group also dismisses the atheists’ criticism, saying the church doesn’t publicly endorse legislative candidates. Scott Gordon, president of FairMormon, also says in an email that detractors are to be expected.
"Any time you have an organization that has a large economic footprint in a community, there will be some who will resent it and want to push back against it," he said.
LDS officials say the church isn’t responding to the atheist group.
Twice a year, tens of thousands of Mormons arrive in Salt Lake City for the church’s general conference. Early this month, attendees heard LDS church officials denounce gay marriage.
A small group of a few dozen, led by Atheists of Utah along with the American Atheists, protested the conference.
Atheist organizers expect hundreds of participants to arrive between Good Friday and Easter Sunday to a conference that last came to Salt Lake City in 1981.
The group plans its gatherings for Easter weekend in part to draw attention, but also because their members are generally available and hotel and convention centers offer good deals.
As a warm-up, conference officials hosted a panel discussion Wednesday featuring Mormon and atheist experts speaking about public perceptions and stereotypes affecting their respective groups.
Atheist speakers aimed to dispel the notion that members of their group are immoral or unfriendly. LDS panel members, meanwhile, said an incorrect notion about their faith is that it’s unwelcoming or exclusive.
Still, Muscato says his group wants to make sure people of all faiths who have doubts, especially disillusioned Mormons in Utah, know they have allies.
"If you don’t believe this stuff anymore," he said, "if you don’t identify as Mormon and don’t believe in God, join our community."