Justin Scott admitted he isn't a good public speaker and is a horrible speech writer, yet the vocalization of his beliefs, or lack thereof, has made headlines in Iowa and across the country.

The director of Eastern Iowa Atheists, the nonreligious group of about 400 members, has queried a who's who of politicians, including former presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and now-President Donald Trump, about faith and separation of church and state. And, earlier this year, he gave an invocation at the Iowa Statehouse.

To be that "agent of change," he is turning his attention to the local level, where he gave the invocation at Tuesday's Bettendorf City Council meeting.

"We try to operate with hug-first, hammer-second approach," Scott said. "There is a time for that, but we're also not the same firebrand or troublemakers we've been made out to be. Atheists are normal people, and there are more atheists in your lives than you realize."

The birth of an atheist

Born and raised in Maquoketa before moving to Manchester when he was 16, Scott was raised Lutheran before he came to the realization that religion was not for him.

Scott still has the Bible he received when he was 9, but it was in the comfort of online message boards that he said he found clarity of his beliefs.

Twenty posts down, he clicked on a discussion that said "something to the effect that is OK to be an atheist."

"It said if you want to look at the religion, you need get away from the pastors, priests and cheerleaders of faith and read the books," Scott said. "A couple paragraphs in I was thinking, '... It's their hell, not my hell.'"

The revelation led Scott, who said he has become some kind of "reluctant superhero," to wanting to make a difference on behalf of those who felt alienated for their lack of faith.

Activism

Scott's new-found activism took him to presidential rallies, where he asked presidential candidates about faith and why an atheist should vote for them.

"I thought to myself, 'This either is going to be a complete embarrassment, or this is going to be raging success,'" Scott said.

Scott first was noticed when he asked Rubio whether he was running to be commander-in-chief or pastor-in-chief.

Between all of the videos posted on YouTube, his questions have garnered millions of views.

Scott said his group has been going to town hall meetings for the past four months asking lawmakers about religion and the separation of church and state, which eventually led him to the Statehouse in April and inquiring about becoming pastor of the day.

In the invocation, Scott called upon the Iowa House to "invoke the holy trinity of science made up of reason, observation and experience.”

"There wasn't any push-back or any protesters, but I'm not naive to think atheists are accepted in Iowa in 2017 just because an atheist gave an invocation at the Statehouse," he said. "Bigotry has to come to an end."

And as he has taken the show on the road to different municipal and county functions, he has found both acceptance and resistance.

Mixed reaction

Scott's invocation at the Bettendorf City Council Tuesday night marks the one-year mark since he gave the invocation at the Waterloo City Council.

It was Waterloo's decision to bring back prayer that helped spur the local movement forward.

"My group sent off emails and organized troops about opposition to this," Scott said. "We told the mayor not to have prayer at city council, but he said, 'Too bad. I'm doing this.' That's what started us seeking to schedule an atheist prayer."

Although some have come around, Scott is embroiled in fights with the cities of Waverly and Independence over allowing more beliefs to give invocations.

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There also has been push-back about his group's Day of Reason proclamation, which is a response to the Day of Prayer.

Only four out of 40 cities the group has approached have adopted the proclamation, beginning with Cedar Rapids and followed by Waterloo, Iowa City and Coralville.

Scott contacted the city of Davenport last year and was denied by Mayor Frank Klipsch and various members of the City Council.

In email responses to Scott, Alderman Ray Ambrose, 4th Ward, told Scott he didn't see the necessity for the proclamation, and Alderman Kyle Gripp, at-large, called it "unnecessarily divisive."

"We are an inclusive city," Gripp wrote. "Atheists and humanists enjoy the same opportunities to live, work and play in Davenport as Muslims, Jews and Christians. There is no reason to proclaim any of these groups as superior."

The Davenport City Council, however, does not issue or approve proclamations, so any decision falls upon the mayor's prerogative.

Scott said Davenport's reaction discouraged the group from trying again this year, but he heaped praise on Bettendorf for its openness in allowing him to speak.

"That's exactly what you want to see in city government," Scott said. "It's only seen as a positive."

Scott asked members in attendance not to bow their heads or close their eyes so that they could "appreciate the amount of human potential gathered" in the room.

While some snickered and rolled their eyes during the invocation, Scott referred to Tuesday night as "historic."

"People are afraid to admit they are nonreligious or an atheist," Scott said.

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