Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton said Tuesday she has accepted an invitation from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to give brief opening remarks and a welcome to the organization's national convention in Madison next month.
In doing so, she will become the highest-ranking elected official from any state to address the convention in the organization's 34-year history, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president. The annual gathering travels around the country but is held every third year in Madison, where the foundation is based.
Lawton, a Democrat who is not seeking reelection in November, said she accepted the invitation "without hesitation" and originally planned to give her remarks in person. A family trip the same weekend will require her to tape her comments.
She said she is not a member of the foundation but respects its work. She declined to discuss her religious beliefs.
Lawton said she thought of her two grandfathers — both Protestant ministers — and her father, a World War II pilot, in accepting the invitation.
"This is a clear statement of my patriotism and my understanding of a democracy where we have people of faith able to answer their calling to the fullest and where there's a protection of the integrity of our Constitution and the line between church and state," she said.
Lawton added that she gets many requests to provide an official welcome at conferences and tries to accommodate as many of them as possible.
Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison professor of political science, said that while Lawton may genuinely feel a responsibility to welcome the convention to Wisconsin, "politicians find it fairly easy to duck invitations" they don't want to accept.
"Politicians want to be for mom and apple pie. They don't want to offend religious voters," he said. "I think it's really clear she's an outgoing state official not seeking higher office."
Lawton dropped out of the race for governor last fall, citing "very personal reasons" and leaving it at that. Asked Tuesday if her appearance before such a controversial group indicates she is done with politics, she said she remains open to the possibility of future elected service.
"If this precludes me from having the support to serve this democracy, we're in big trouble," she said.
Would she have accepted the invitation if she were campaigning for something? "I would like to think so," Lawton said.
The foundation describes itself as a group of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and rationalists. It promotes the separation of church and state and educates the public about non-theism. The group has more than 13,500 paid members, Gaylor said.
The group's 33rd annual conference will be Oct. 29-31 at The Concourse Hotel. Last year's convention in Seattle reached its capacity of 600 attendees and turned others away, Gaylor said.
Gaylor said she had been struck by Lawton's willingness in the past to speak publicly and favorably of the foundation's work. "I had a hunch she might say yes," Gaylor said.