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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Former NBA Player Comes Out; Atheism in America; Race and Politics

Aired February 12, 2007 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And thanks for joining us. Paula has got tonight off.
Here are the stories that we're bringing out in the open tonight.

Barack Obama's race, Mitt Romney's religion, and the hidden intolerance of American voters.

Also, the most controversial story that we have ever brought into the open -- atheists say you will not believe the bigotry that they are up against.

Plus: the furor unleashed against a columnist who wrote, rape only hurts if you fight it.

We start tonight with presidential politics and shades of race. Senator Barack Obama is, right now, winding up his first trip to New Hampshire as a full-fledged presidential candidate. His town hall rally at the University of New Hampshire tonight drew so many people, that they ran out of tickets. The senator officially declared his candidacy over the weekend in Springfield, Illinois.

Many people are asking whether white America is ready to elect a black president. But intolerance comes in all colors. The first issue that we're bringing out in the open tonight is whether the senator, whose father is from Kenya and whose mother is white, is black enough to satisfy black voters.

At this past weekend's State of the Black Union conference, the Reverend Al Sharpton pointedly urged people not to base their vote on a candidate's skin color, but on their record.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Just because you're our color don't make you our kind. We want to know what you're going to represent.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: When asked how important race is in defining who he is, this is what Senator Obama said last night on CBS' "60 Minutes."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "60 MINUTES") SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am rooted in the African-American community, but I am not defined by it. I am comfortable in my racial identity, but that is not all I am.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: And joining me tonight to talk about all of this is Melissa Harris-Lacewell. She is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University who has been following Senator Obama's political career for many, many years.

Melissa, let me, first of all, give you your words, and you can sort of explain here what you were talking about. You said, in an interview -- quote -- "You can be elected president as a black person, only if you signal, at some level, that you are independent from black people."

Do you believe this is what Obama is doing?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF POLITICS AND AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: Well, this is certainly part of what Obama has to do, if he's going to build a multiracial national coalition with enough electoral votes to win the White House.

Part of what he has to demonstrate is that he is not a traditional black leaders. In other words, to at least certain populations of white voters, it's going to be important that he says: I'm black, but only incidentally so.

ROBERTS: But doesn't he also need to demonstrate to African- American that he is a black leader, that -- the fact that he is much better liked by whites than he is by African-Americans seems to be causing some skepticism in the community. You even said -- quote -- "Blacks want to know, why do they love you so much, Obama, when they don't love us?"

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, that's right. So, I think we need to be careful in suggesting that African-Americans don't like Barack Obama.

It's just that it's a two-stage process to become president. First, you have got to win the primaries. Then, you got to win the general election.

Now, in the primaries, the African-American vote for the Democrats is extremely powerful and important. Any presidential candidate would have to win it. But it's particularly important for Barack Obama, because he is a black candidate. If he cannot demonstrate in the polls that he is carrying the African-American vote, it's going to be difficult for him to get the money-makers to write the checks that are necessary to sustain through the campaign.

So, Barack has got to demonstrate that, although he is not a traditional black leader, that he in fact is with black people, in the sense that he's a progressive leader, interested in the same political questions that they are. ROBERTS: But -- but some people seem to be a little skeptical of him, because he doesn't share the traditional roots of African- Americans. He didn't come from the history of slavery in this country. His father was a Kenyan immigrant. His mother was white.

Stanley Crouch, the columnist from "The New York Daily News," put it this way.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: He said -- quote -- "When black Americans refer to Obama as -- quote -- 'one of us,' I don't know what they're talking about. While he has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own, nor has he lived the life of a black American."

So, people are looking for him to relate to their issues.

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well...

ROBERTS: Did he miss an opportunity this weekend?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I do think he missed an opportunity this weekend. But I also think that brother Stanley is overstating that particular statement.

African-American experience is not a unitary, single experience. Black people come from lots of different places. We have embraced leaders like Marcus Garvey who are not from the American South slavery traditional. We have embraced Walter White of the NAACP, who was so visibly white that he sometimes passed in the American South.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS-LACEWELL: So, we have embraced many leaders.

I do think where Barack missed his opportunity was standing there in Springfield, Illinois, when he evoked Lincoln and therefore evoked American slavery. He needed to also signal to black people that he understood, our part of that story is a little different than the triumphant story of winning the Civil War, that, for black people, the relationship with Lincoln, with slavery and with race in America remains complicated.

Now, if Barack can do that, if he can show an awareness of the complexity of the black experience, which I think he has, but he may be getting handled out of doing, then, he will solidify that African- American vote.

ROBERTS: Well, he's got a long road to go. So, we will see how he does on that front.

HARRIS-LACEWELL: It's a long time until the primaries.

ROBERTS: Melissa Harris-Lacewell from Princeton, thanks very much. Appreciate... HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you.

ROBERTS: ... you being with us.

Now let's find out if tonight's "Out in the Open" panel thinks that Senator Obama's heritage is going to get in the way of winning over black voters.

With us tonight is Ellen Johnson. She's the president of American Atheists, also a political scientist. Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson is the founder and president of Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, or BOND, which focuses on community outreach. He's also a syndicated radio host, been a guest here before. And we also welcome back Air America host Rachel Maddow.

First of all, begin we get into this idea of is Barack Obama black enough to win over the African-American vote, take a look at the way that "Saturday Night Live" treated it this past weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DARRELL HAMMOND, ACTOR: ... Africa name, Barack.

KENAN THOMPSON, ACTOR: Moving up.

(LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: But, in high school, you went by Barry.

THOMPSON: Moving down.

(LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: You married a black woman.

THOMPSON: Moving up.

HAMMOND: But, in the past, you dated white woman.

THOMPSON: Still moving up.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Well, it's all comedy, but it's -- but it's a serious subject.

As I was talking about with Melissa, does he, Reverend Peterson, have the depth of experience, the depth of African-American experience, to -- to really have the trust of African-American voters? JESSE LEE PETERSON, FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT, BROTHERHOOD ORGANIZATION OF A NEW DESTINY: Let me say, the whole idea of him being black enough is racist enough within itself.

You know, we are Americans. And this issue of focus -- the focus on race should be outdated. When they say, if he's black -- is he black enough, and Al Sharpton saying, he's not one of us, what they're saying is that he doesn't hate white folks; he's not blaming white Americans...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: He's not an angry black activist.

PETERSON: Right. He's not an angry black person, blaming white Americans for their problems, telling black folks that you need more government, governmental programs, entitlement programs.

And, so, when you're not that type of a black person, you're rejected by the black community. And that's what's happening here.

ROBERTS: Rachel, do you have any doubt that he does care deeply about African-American issues...

RACHEL MADDOW, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well...

ROBERTS: ... and would act on them if he became president?

MADDOW: ... it's interesting.

The reason that we know he's black enough, in terms of answering the question, is because nobody is talking about what he thinks about the war. You know, nobody is talking even about what he thinks about issues that are traditionally of concern to the African-American community.

All we're doing is talking about his race. And, so, clearly, his race is enough to be a major factor in his candidacy, if that's how we define enough. Barack Obama is going to be of interest because of his race to everybody in the country, because minority candidates are very rare at the presidential level.

The question of whether or not I think he's going to grab the black vote, and the progressive vote, more broadly, is whether or not he's going to take real policy positions on those real issues, and fight for those issues, regardless of what his biography is.

ROBERTS: You know, when you look at the two front-runner in this race, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Hillary in some polls is leading 3-1 in terms of African-American who would vote for her.

Here's what a CBS News poll found recently in terms of support; 52 percent of African-American polled said they would vote for Hillary Clinton; 28 percent would vote for Barack Obama.

Ellen, what is that all about? ELLEN JOHNSON, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN ATHEISTS: That's amazing, because I think that people are so ready for a change right now, and they want a fresh face, whether it's a white -- whether it's a woman or it's a black man. I think they're ready for -- I think that they would definitely vote for Barack Obama for president or Hillary Rodham Clinton for president. I think it's about time. And I think that we will see that.

ROBERTS: Reverend Peterson...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Go ahead.

PETERSON: The only reason that they're supporting Hillary Clinton...

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNSON: Let me just say one more thing.

And I should -- being black, and -- it's not a racist issue. I think that black people are going to be probably...

PETERSON: To focus on the black color, it's a racist issue. What about the character of a person?

JOHNSON: It's a wonderful thing for black people to see a black person running for office..

(CROSSTALK)

PETERSON: No. How about just being an American?

(CROSSTALK)

PETERSON: I want to vote for the man -- even though I don't agree with Barack Obama's politics -- but I want to vote for a man who agrees with my values...

(CROSSTALK)

PETERSON: ... and my politics. It doesn't matter what color that person is.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Let me ask you this question. Does this lack of support for Obama in the African-American community, is any of that rooted in the idea that Hillary Clinton has had that locked up, through herself and her relationship with Bill Clinton, for a number of years...

PETERSON: I was about to say that.

ROBERTS: ... and they're finding reasons to not like Barack? PETERSON: If you remember, they call Hillary -- Bill Clinton the first black president.

ROBERTS: Yes.

PETERSON: And the reason that they call him the first black president is because Bill Clinton made black folks being good about racist toward white Americans. They made them -- he made them feel good about being wrong. He gave them entitlement programs.

And, so, black folks -- not all, of course, but most of them love politics who caters to them, rather than correcting them. And, so, Hillary is kind of riding on the heels of Bill Clinton.

ROBERTS: We are going to have to leave this topic for now, but we have got a lot more to talk about over the course of the hour, so, all of you stay right there, please.

We want to look at something else that could affect the race for the White House right now. The coming election may test voters' intolerance in more ways than one.

Tomorrow morning, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney makes what everyone expects will be his former president -- formal presidential announcement. One concern about Romney is his religion. He's Mormon.

And, for some Republican voters, that's a problem.

Here's senior political correspondent Candy Crowley with that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Even his detractors give him props for presentation. But Mitt Romney is more than just another pretty face: Harvard Law and Harvard Business, former management consultant CEO, and former head of the Olympics, and former governor of Massachusetts, where he developed his stiffest critics.

They slam him for using the governorship in one of the country's most liberal states to repackage himself as a conservative presidential candidate.

SALVATORE DIMASI, MASSACHUSETTS SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: And he changed a lot over the four years that he was here. His rhetoric and his positions on, like, abortion, like gay rights, like stem cell research totally changed when he decided that his focus should be on conservative votes across the country.

CROWLEY: Romney's emphasis on values is not just about moral issues. It's about religion, his.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mormonism does make me nervous, because I'm a Christian, and because the precepts and principles and, more importantly, the practices of Mormonism have cause for great concern. CROWLEY: Romney is Mormon, the Church of Latter Day Saints, viewed by some, mostly conservative evangelicals, as a non-Christian, cultlike organization, all things they have heard before in Salt Lake City, home base for Mormons.

DON WILTON, SPARTANBURG FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH: I think there will be attacks on Romney that will be launched by third-party groups about his religion. I think that's almost a certainty.

CROWLEY: It's unclear how much his religion will hurt, but it is of particular concern for Romney in conservative South Carolina, the first primary state. He has returned repeatedly there with explanations of his faith and his values to groups both big and small.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had a discussion, also, privately with Governor Romney, and said to him that, clearly, the one issue that he's going to have to properly communicate is what the Mormon faith is all about.

CROWLEY: Romney aides have long held that he can overcome or at least mitigate the religion issue with a focus on shared values. Still, a poll by "L.A. Times"/Bloomberg last year shows, 37 percent of Americans would not vote for a Mormon. It is a hurdle.

Candy Crowley, CNN, Dearborn, Michigan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: Well, there's at least one prediction that voters won't have a litmus test on a candidate's faith, but Senator Barack Obama says, voters want assurances that a candidate appreciates the role that faith plays in shaping people's lives, which, ironically, brings us to people with no faith in God.

Atheists say they face more intolerance and discrimination than anyone in America. We got a few gigabytes of e-mail about that. And we will bring that topic out in the open coming up next.

And later: gay in the NBA. I will talk with the first male pro basketball player to come out of the closet.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: We're out in the open tonight with a controversy that generated thousands of e-mails when we first touched on it: intolerance against people who don't believe there's a God.

So, what's it like to be an atheist in America?

Our Delia Gallagher looks at one family's disturbing experience.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE RICE, ATHEIST: As an atheist, I'm the last minority that it's OK to really bash or put down.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jean and Mike Rice are atheists who live in Colorado.

JEAN RICE, ATHEIST: We're regularly told that we're going to hell, that we're sending our children to hell.

GALLAGHER (on camera): These are people saying this to your face?

J. RICE: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

M. RICE: To our face.

GALLAGHER: It seems like a nice place to live.

M. RICE: Yes. Well, we have got a nice place to...

GALLAGHER: Yes.

M. RICE: ... to raise them.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Jean and Mike both grew up in Christian families, attended church and Bible school, and both say that, at an early age, they questioned the idea of a higher power.

J. RICE: I was 9 or 10. And, one day, for the first time, I realized that everyone else believed all these stories. I just didn't realize what they meant, that -- that there's actually, supposedly, something out there.

GALLAGHER: The price of coming out publicly as atheists can be high. In the last town they lived in, Jean Rice says, soon after confiding her atheism to a friend, her landlord told the family they would have to move.

J. RICE: Within a few days of my telling her that -- that we are atheists, she -- I -- I started hearing from other people: Oh, are you atheists?

And it -- it was quite shocking. And, within a few weeks, my landlord -- our landlord gave us notice.

GALLAGHER: The Rices say they can't prove that religious discrimination was the reason they were asked to leave, but they found the timing suspicious.

(on camera): How has this affected your kids?

J. RICE: They have had to learn to keep their mouths shut.

M. RICE: Our daughter had no one to play with for a long time.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): The fear of becoming outcast keeps many atheists underground. And what little support they find is often online, where friends and neighbors can't see.

Jean belongs to an online support group for atheist moms.

(on camera): And why no curious Christians?

J. RICE: We're hear to talk among ourselves.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): In the U.S., the number of atheists is estimated between 1 and 3 percent of the overall population. That's at least three million people.

A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that atheists are the least trusted minority group in the United States, and are less accepted than other marginalized groups, including Muslims and homosexuals.

LORI LIPMAN BROWN, SECULAR COALITION FOR AMERICA: I get calls from all over the United States from people who have been harassed, ostracized, sometimes lost their jobs, because of discrimination against non-theistic Americans.

RYAN ANDERSON, JUNIOR FELLOW, "FIRST THINGS": We feel, to a certain extent, that atheists are very much on the attack.

GALLAGHER: Ryan Anderson, with the religious journal "First Things" says, atheists themselves contribute to the mistrust.

ANDERSON: Part of the public persona and the public image of atheism is what's presented by the people suing, you know, to remove "In God we trust" from the coins or the God phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance. And, when that militant atheism becomes kind of like the public image of atheism, I think that gives rise to a lot of discontent with atheism.

J. RICE: When they can talk about religion and preach on the street corner, but, if we try to do the equal time, if we try to go out there and say as much about that there is no God as they...

M. RICE: I'm not the one doing the oppressing.

J. RICE: ... want to say that there is a God...

M. RICE: I'm the one being oppressed at that point.

J. RICE: Exactly.

GALLAGHER: Delia Gallagher, CNN, Colorado.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: Well, after we first brought this topic out in the open, most of the e-mails that we received were from people who thought that we should have included an atheist in our discussion.

So, now we're going to turn to one of the world's most prominent atheists. Richard Dawkins is an Oxford University professor whose bestseller sparked worldwide controversy. "The God Delusion" argues that belief in God is not only irrational, but it can be deadly. Paula spoke with him just a couple of days ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD DAWKINS, AUTHOR, "THE GOD DELUSION": Why don't you believe in Thor? Why don't you believe in Zeus? Nobody believes in most of the things that you could believe in. You're an atheist with respect to the flying spaghetti monster.

I am an atheist with respect to the Judeo-Christian God, because there is not a shred of evidence in favor or the Judeo-Christian God, or, indeed any other God.

ZAHN: It strikes me that the atheist message is particularly threatening to some Christians because they believe, in some way, you're trying to compromise their ability to have this stuff out there on the public stage.

Is there any public role, as far as you're concerned, for religion?

DAWKINS: I think people should be free to believe whatever they like, to write whatever they like, to say whatever they like, within -- within reason.

But the problem is that religious people, I think especially in America, and also in the Islamic world, are in the habit of getting it all their own way and are remarkably intolerant of atheists.

ZAHN: But why do you think they are so remarkably intolerant of atheists?

DAWKINS: Well, I think there's a sort of historic misunderstanding of what atheism is.

For some reason, people have been brought up to believe that atheists have two horns and a tail. I mean, there are figures that show that atheists are the most mistrusted group in America, which is pretty astonishing, considering, as I say, the innocuousness of what they actually are. They are just people who hold a different belief system.

ZAHN: Certainly, you have encountered people, though, who are intimidated by your message, that, in some way, it puts perhaps their own faith in doubt?

DAWKINS: Well, why would anybody be intimidated by mere words?

I mean, neither I, nor any other atheist that I know, ever threatens violence. We never threaten to fly planes into skyscrapers. We never threaten suicide bombs. We're very gentle people. All we do is use words to talk about things like the cosmos, the origin of the universe, evolution, the origin of life. What's there to be frightened of in just an opinion?

ZAHN: Final question: How would you characterize the overarching public reaction to atheism?

DAWKINS: Misunderstanding, and really missing an awful lot of what's valuable, because, if you're an atheist, you know, you believe this is the only life you're going to get. It's a precious life. It's a beautiful life. It's something that we should live to the full, to the end of our days, whereas, if you're religious, and you believe that there's another life, somehow, that means you don't live this life to the full, because you think you're going to get another one.

That's an awfully negative way to live a life. Being an atheist frees you up to live this life properly, happily, and fully.

ZAHN: Richard Dawkins, we really appreciate your time tonight. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAWKINS: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: Some eye-opening opinions and allegations.

Next, our panel weighs in on what can be done about religious intolerance and discrimination against atheists.

And later on: a secret world revealed -- a onetime NBA player comes out of the closet. Just wait until you hear what he has to say.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Welcome back.

We're talking about discrimination against atheists and how the fear of becoming outcasts keeps many atheists underground.

Let's turn to our "Out in the Open" panel. Atheist Ellen Johnson is here with us, the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, and radio talk show host Rachel Maddow.

So, let me turn to you, first of all, Ellen.

Do atheists bring this on themselves by going to Supreme Court with campaigns like trying to take the words "under God" out of the pledge, trying to take the words "In God we trust" off of the currency?

JOHNSON: By being good citizens.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: You're 1 to 3 percent of the population.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Why are you so noisy? JOHNSON: By trying to uphold the Constitution of the United States. I think that's being a good citizen. And I think that we should be applauded for it.

However, most atheists are in the closet, unfortunately. You haven't seen that this is just the tip of the iceberg. And, when atheists start coming out more and more, then, we will see more problems.

But what the problem really is and what it stems from is that religion is losing out in America, and the religious know it. There's empty pew syndrome. There's a lot of competition among religions. And there's just modern life. People are not going to church like they should.

So, the churches have to go to where the people are. They're going -- the military is under siege. The prisons are under siege. The workplaces are under siege. And the public schools are under siege. And the religious are getting very angry, and they're fighting back.

And, when they see an atheist who tries to uphold the Constitution and challenge them when they break the law, then there are all kinds of problems.

And, mind you, they also go after religious people. In Pontotoc, Mississippi, when a Christian woman said that organized prayers in that school, the public school systems there, were wrong, and she challenged it, they went after her with a vengeance.

ROBERTS: Right.

JOHNSON: Bishop John Shelby Spong received 15 death threats because of his liberal views.

So, it's not just atheists.

ROBERTS: Well, let me go to Reverend Peterson.

You're losing out? Is that -- is that...

(CROSSTALK)

PETERSON: No.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: ... you're discriminating against these people?

PETERSON: Atheists are hypocrites.

What they're trying to do, too, is impose their godless lifestyle upon Americans, and especially upon Christians. This great country was built on the idea of God, family, and Constitution. And they want to change that. Now, if they want to be atheist, it's OK to do that, but just go and do it, and don't try to change America, remove God out of the lives of everybody.

ROBERTS: Well...

(CROSSTALK)

PETERSON: And Christians are just fighting back.

And, real fast, we saw the same thing with the radical homosexual movement. They decided to come out of the closet. And what they did was, they imposed their lifestyle upon Americans. Now they have redefined the family and all that.

ROBERTS: She was with you for a second, and now you have...

MADDOW: No. No. No.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: And now you have lost her.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Let just me read an...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Let me read an e-mail that we got here. This is obviously from an atheist, who talks about this idea of -- of who has rights to do that.

He writes -- quote -- "You ask atheists not to impose on your rights to have prayer in school and to have God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Atheists ask you not to impose on their rights to have prayer taken out of school and to have God taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance. On what basis do you assume that your rights should be taken as precedence over an atheist's?"

Well, obviously, Christians are in the overwhelming majority...

PETERSON: That's right.

ROBERTS: ... when it comes to Christians vs. atheists.

But does the Constitution, Rachel, not only give you freedom of religious, but freedom from religion?

MADDOW: The Constitution gives you freedom from religion and creates a government that is explicitly nonreligious. So, we could say it's...

ROBERTS: So, there should be equal rights, yes?

MADDOW: Yes. No. Well, you -- I mean, you can say that America is a Christian nation, in the sense that America is...

PETERSON: It is.

MADDOW: ... a Christian majority nation. You're right.

But we have a secular government. And the way we protect religion in this country, and the way we have become such a religious country is by protecting religion, by keeping it utterly separate from the public sphere and from government. And, so, there's...

(CROSSTALK)

PETERSON: But that's not -- that's not the American way, though.

MADDOW: Yes, it is.

(CROSSTALK)

MADDOW: Let me just finish my thought, Reverend.

PETERSON: We have Christianity in the public schools first...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: We're running out of time, so make it quick.

MADDOW: There's not equality among religions under the American government.

PETERSON: That's not true.

MADDOW: There is freedom from religion. Freedom from religion is what we have.

ROBERTS: OK. Let me ask this question.

There is a common perception among Christians, or at least a common case that Christians sometimes make, that atheists, because they do not believe in God, are morally compromised.

Are you morally compromised?

JOHNSON: No. That's just bigotry.

They know who atheists are. I have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Dawkins, Professor Dawkins. The theists know very well who -- what -- who we are, and they're not misunder-interpreting us or misunderstanding us.

You know, that's just bigotry. And, in order to make religious feel -- religious people feel better, they have to say lies about...

PETERSON: Then, where do you get your morals from? Christians get their morals from God, from the -- from the Bible, from God. Where do you get yours from?

JOHNSON: It's not about where we get our ethics from.

PETERSON: Where do you get them from? It's a question.

JOHNSON: That's not the...

PETERSON: Answer the question. Where do you get them from?

JOHNSON: But the idea that we don't have ethics is not -- no one sees that. We're not the ones that are, you know, abusing children. Professionally religious people aren't any more ethic -- ethical...

PETERSON: Are you saying Christians are abusing children?

ROBERTS: I have got to call a timeout here, folks. We're not done yet, because there's a lot more to talk about. Wait until you see the case that we have got coming up.

Also, one of the biggest secrets in sports out in the open tonight. Up next, the first NBA player in history to publicly declare that he's gay.

Later on, here's what I was talking about. Can you believe this was the title of a newspaper column? "Rape Only Hurts If You Fight It." We're not kidding. That was published.

We'll find out what the man who wrote it was thinking, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Among the stories that we're bringing out in the open in this half hour, men's attitudes towards women and rape. A newspaper column that was supposed to be a satire sparks outrage by trying to justify rape.

And at the top of the hour on "LARRY KING LIVE," Anna Nicole Smith's best friend for 16 years. Plus, from the Bahamas, the latest on the custody battle for Smith's baby.

Out in the open tonight, the first NBA player ever to reveal that he's gay. Former pro baseball and football players have come out before, but never anyone in men's pro basketball.

So, John Amaechi's revelation is making headlines. Amaechi played five seasons with three NBA teams. He retired in 2003 after the Utah Jazz benched him. He says he believes that his homosexuality was a factor in that. Now he's telling his story in a new book titled, "Man in the Middle."

And John Amaechi joins me now.

Good to have you here with us in the studio.

JOHN AMAECHI, FMR. PRO BASKETBALL PLAYER: Thanks, John.

ROBERTS: Well, what I'm not interested in is not so much the fact that you came out or why now, but why not earlier? Wouldn't it have made more impact if as an active player on an NBC team you had come out with this revelation?

AMAECHI: I think it's completely legitimate. Yes, had I come out earlier, it would have had more impact.

It certainly would have stirred people. But it seems to me that this has stirred people quite a lot, the discourse, the talking, the questions that are being asked and answered that were not asked and answered before. So I'm still serving a useful purpose now.

ROBERTS: But I'm wondering is, you're being hailed by gay and lesbian groups as a role model. But aren't you in effect saying to athletes, don't tell people you're gay now, wait until you retire, wait until you're off the court, wait until you're off the football field? And if that is the case, how does it advance the cause?

AMAECHI: I'm not telling people that. Society is telling people that.

ROBERTS: Well, by waiting that you're inferring that.

AMAECHI: Again, it's a fair comment to suggest that it would be better while people played. But what you're essentially saying is, we as society, we want our pound of flesh. Give us our human sacrifice. I don't care what you lose. I don't care what you risk. You must fall on your sword for us to look at you in a different way.

ROBERTS: Jerry Sloan, the coach of the Utah Jazz, he suspected you were gay, subjected you to insinuation, also said in a recent interview when asked if it would have made a difference, said, "Oh, yeah, it probably would have mattered."

But you already think that his perceptions of you affected your career.

AMAECHI: Yes, I think it -- his perceptions of me absolutely affected my career. What is false is it wasn't just because he perceived me to be gay. It was also because he perceived me to be anti-American. He also perceived me to be a person who hates white people.

ROBERTS: Basketball commissioner David Stern has suggested this isn't an issue at all. He said, "We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always, 'Have you got game?'. That's it. End of inquiry."

Is that it? I mean, as a closeted homosexual, were you ever privy to any homophobic comments?

AMAECHI: I heard them all the time, but it wasn't because people thought I was gay.

ROBERTS: Well, how widespread is homophobia in the NBA?

AMAECHI: I think it's widespread in society. Not just homophobia, but heterosexism is widespread, the assumption that everybody you come across is straight. ROBERTS: On that point, negative comments from former teammates and just colleagues in the NBA have all centered around this idea of, we don't want a homosexual man in the locker room. So it begs the question, were you ever attracted to any of either your teammates or your fellow players in the league? Did you ever find any of them even mildly attractive?

AMAECHI: This is the worst kind of stereotype. As if -- as if even if I was, that I would be unable to resist the temptations. It's the ultimate in narcissism.

ROBERTS: No, no, but you did write in your book that there were a few players that you were attracted to, but they were always playing on the other team. And I'm not sure if you meant the opposing players or the heterosexual team.

AMAECHI: Again, I recognize that men and women are attractive. They're aesthetically pleasing to look at. But I had a job to do. When I played basketball, it was so hard for me to get where I was and so hard for me to stay where I was, that my focus was on getting within my group, forming a type of chemistry together that meant that we could go out and kick somebody else's tail.

ROBERTS: LeBron James said it's a matter of trust. That if you play on a basketball team and you don't tell your teammates that you're gay, you're untrustworthy.

AMAECHI: It's one of the classic double binds (ph). What can I say? It lacks -- it's so spurious that it defies me at times that people come up with things like that.

I recognize he's a young man. I recognize that he lacks experience. I don't know if he has a passport. What I do know is that telling people that unless you tell them you're gay you won't accept them, but when they tell you you're gay you don't accept them, is a double bind (ph).

ROBERTS: You have certainly ignited an interesting debate.

John Amaechi, thanks for being with us. Appreciate it.

AMAECHI: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Out in the open. Next, he says it was satire, but nobody's laughing. Find out what happened to a newspaper columnist who described rape as "a magical experience."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Chances are if you saw the headline "Rape Only Hurts If You Fight It" in your local newspaper, you would be pretty disgusted. So you can understand the outrage tonight over an editorial in a college newspaper in Connecticut which seemed to offer a justification, even glorification for rape.

The editorial was written by a male student and meant to be satire. But it does raise the question that we're brining out in the open tonight. Do some college men take rape too lightly?

Here's Deborah Feyerick.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not something you take lightly.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): They lined up to voice their outrage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To me, this is how something as small as racism breeds. If you don't fix the problem in the beginning, you have to wait for someone in the end is hurt.

FEYERICK: The anger peeking when college junior Nicki LaPorte took the mic, saying very publicly she had been raped.

NICKI LAPORTE, STUDENT: I'm not ugly. I am not fat. I'm perfect just the way I am, as every other woman here is. I am not a victim of rape, I am a survivor of rape.

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

FEYERICK: The anger erupted over a so-called satire in her college newspaper called "Rape Only Hurts If You Fight It."

LAPORTE: I was sad, I was crying. I was angry, just so angry that it was brought out and that by history, my emotions, my emotions, my scars were supposed to be funny.

FEYERICK (on camera): You got a standing ovation.

LAPORTE: It brought me to tears. I couldn't believe these people were standing up for me over something I felt was just -- needed to be said.

FEYERICK (voice over): The forum capped off five days of a campus-wide firestorm ignited by an editorial in last week's student newspaper "The Recorder." The satire, written by the paper's opinion editor, John Petroski, was intended to poke fun at the media's thirst for sensationalized stories.

In it, the sophomore says, "... rape is a magical experience that benefits society, specifically ugly women and prisoners."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's disgusting. There's no humor. There's nothing funny about it.

FEYERICK: The article has been widely condemned across campus, in classes and dorms. About 100 students protested last week. And thousands of bloggers on facebook.com have weighed in criticizing the newspaper.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why would the words "rape is magical" be allowed in a university's newspaper? My life was filled with horror and shame after being raped.

JOHN PETROSKI, OPINION EDITOR, "THE RECORDER": Because it wasn't my intention to hurt people. It wasn't my intention to make girls on campus cry.

It wasn't my intention, you know, to make girls on campus fear for their safety here. It wasn't my intention to make certain girls want to commit suicide over this. And that is not something I want to do. And if I had realized that that would be the result of my writing that article, I would not have written it.

MARK ROWAN, EDITOR & CHIEF, "THE RECORDER": My apology is going to be on the front page.

FEYERICK: The paper's editor-in-chief, Mark Rowan, says he didn't think the satire was particularly funny and admits printing it was wrong.

ROWAN: I'm not going to use free speech to defend it. Never will I do it. I think it was in very poor taste, and the only thing I can say is that we made a huge mistake by writing it. And I think John made a huge mistake by writing it.

FEYERICK: The university president did not attend the forum but issued a statement calling the editorial "Deeply offensive and hurtful" and promised a review of the editorial process.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I applaud you for standing up and taking responsibility for what you said.

FEYERICK: As for the student who sparked such a ferocious debate, he says he's planning on taking part in a rape walk and becoming more involved in drawing attention to the crime of rape. He has been demoted from opinion editor to staff writer. No one else has been punished.

(on camera): Are you a bad person?

PETROSKI: I don't think I'm a bad person. I think that I'm a better person now than I was a week ago. I mean, I'm still a work in progress. I'm only 23.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: That was our Deborah Feyerick reporting. Free speech or not, should something in such bad taste have been allowed in a student newspaper?

Our "Out in the Open" panel weighs in on that and other questions next.

And at the top of the hour, "LARRY KING LIVE" has the latest developments in the fight over Anna Nicole Smith's baby and her money.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Welcome back.

We're talking about the outrage over an editorial in a college newspaper in Connecticut. It was meant to be satire, but it seems that no one sees any humor in the essay because it tries to justify, even glorify rape.

Let's go back to our "Out in the Open" panel, Ellen Johnson is with us, as is the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, and Rachel Maddow, from Air America.

So, the first question we want to ask is, was this guy really kidding? I mean, here's part -- here's part of the editorial for you to chew on here.

He said, "If it weren't for rape, how would ugly women ever know the joys of intercourse with a man who isn't drunk?"

Now, we could have asked the question, how stupid can one individual be? But, you know -- and this also speaks to the thing that happened with Kramer as well when he was at that comedy club.

How do you write something like this unless you have a fundamental lack of understanding of how our society views rape?

MADDOW: Well, you know, listen, bad jokes arise every day in everybody's mind, and it's a question of how good our editor is whether or not we say them. And if we're writing bad jokes, which I think this guy was doing in this...

ROBERTS: So where was the editor in all this process?

MADDOW: Exactly. So this is a problem with the -- I mean, this as much a problem with the editor as it is for the guy who wrote the column.

The guy was trying to be funny. I don't think he pulled it off very well. I think it's -- it could have been a funny concept. He chose the wrong thing to joke about.

You can maybe joke about rape or suicide or something even more awful if you can be really funny while you're doing it. His column wasn't very funny. It fell on its face. His editor should pay the price.

ROBERTS: Ellen, did you get the joke?

JOHNSON: It was so over the top ridiculous that how you could take it seriously is beyond me. American Atheists is opposed to censorship of any kind. It wasn't great writing, you're absolutely right. But please, I mean, to think that he was seriously saying that these things -- that what he was saying was true, if anyone would believe that, it's just beyond me.

ROBERTS: Yes, but where do you draw the line of bad taste here? Where was the editor?

JOHNSON: I have a daughter. I have a mother. I have a sister.

ROBERTS: Where was the editor who said...

JOHNSON: And I can talk about rape.

ROBERTS: ... you wrote what and you want me to publish this?

JOHNSON: Yes, but I'm a woman and...

PETERSON: It was a bad joke. The point is, does he have a right to say it?

You know, on colleges around the country there's a double standard now. Liberals can say and do whatever they want and they don't allow another opinion. Rape is wrong whether women are raping boys or men are raping women.

MADDOW: Wait. How...

(CROSSTALK)

PETERSON: Just hold on. Hold on.

MADDOW: Everybody's saying what they think.

PETERSON: Hold on. Let me make this point.

Whether women are raping boys or men are raping women, it's wrong. It's evil.

MADDOW: It is.

PETERSON: But does this guy have a right on a college campus of freedom of speech? And that's what this whole issue...

MADDOW: Can I just -- are you saying that...

PETERSON: ... out there, it was a bad joke, it was a wrong joke.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: I love reading "The Onion," but, you know, their satire is a little more highbrow than this.

MADDOW: Are you saying that advocacy of rape is a conservative position and he's being muzzled because there are too many liberals? Is that what you're saying?

PETERSON: They're trying to shut the guy down.

MADDOW: Because he's a conservative? Because this is a conservative position? You ought to run for president on that campaign.

PETERSON: I didn't say it was a conservative position. What I'm saying is that there's a double standard on college campuses around the country.

MADDOW: Well, what does the double standard have to do with this?

PETERSON: So-called progressive liberals can do and say whatever they want, and if another opinion comes in, they want to shut them down.

ROBERTS: OK.

MADDOW: So is this...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: That's the end of the half here.

Let me go to another topic I want to throw out there.

MADDOW: Sure.

ROBERTS: Is humor about rape taboo?

Obviously you don't think so, because...

JOHNSON: No, I don't think it was taboo. I'm a woman, I'm a -- you know, I'm a mother, I have a daughter, I have a sister. You know, I have a mother...

ROBERTS: If your daughter was raped would you think this was funny?

JOHNSON: ... and I can talk about it. This wasn't about a daughter -- a woman being raped. It was not supposed to be serious.

ROBERTS: Still, would you think it was funny?

JOHNSON: People watching the show now should read the whole thing. It was so over the top. Not just what you read.

You have to read the whole thing. You can't take it seriously. I mean, you can't really think that he was condoning rape in any way, shape or form.

ROBERTS: But why would you write that?

JOHNSON: Because he said why he was -- why he was writing it.

PETERSON: He wasn't condoning rape. You know, once you watch the interview you can see that. A bad joke. And I don't think rape is funny, but this guy wasn't condoning it.

MADDOW: You know what it is? It's the liberals running wild. That's what it is. It is.

PETERSON: You're right about that, absolutely. As a matter of fact... MADDOW: Because the liberals are against rape, and that is completely ridiculous in America.

(CROSSTALK)

PETERSON: Some of the folks (ph) have broken into the offices there and stole some of the equipment.

MADDOW: They must be liberals.

ROBERTS: So you think it was a bad joke, right?

PETERSON: Yes.

ROBERTS: Over the top, but he sort of a fundamental right to write it.

You don't have that much of a problem with it. So let me throw this question out: Should the author be punished? Should the editor suffer for publishing this as well?

JOHNSON: No. No, absolutely not. And he explained in the -- afterwards why he wrote it.

There was a purpose for it. And it wasn't go glorify rape or to make fun of it.

PETERSON: I happen to agree with that.

ROBERTS: All right.

PETERSON: He apologized. He was sorry about it. A bad joke. I think he should move on.

MADDOW: I think all liberals should be executed and that will take care of it.

ROBERTS: Seriously, what do you think of this?

MADDOW: No, I mean, I think...

ROBERTS: Should he have been punished?

MADDOW: I think this is a ridiculous argument.

ROBERTS: If this was in "The New York Times," do you think the editorial page -- the editorial chief wouldn't be out looking for a job?

MADDOW: Listen, this was a guy who made a bad joke and wrote a bad column where he picked a really sacrilegious subject. And he didn't do a good job making a joke out of it. The person who chose to run it is a bad editor.

OK. End of story.

ROBERTS: All right.

MADDOW: Also, we are going to war with Iran, but we've got more time to talk about this.

PETERSON: He should not be punished.

ROBERTS: All right.

Folks, we'll come back and we'll talk about Iran. We'll have you back for that. Promise.

Ellen Johnson, Reverend Peterson and Rachel Maddow, thanks all for joining us tonight. Appreciate your time.

"LARRY KING LIVE" is coming up in just a few minutes.

Larry, who is going to be with you tonight?

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Oh, we've got lots of interesting guests on the Anna Nicole Smith matter.

Jackie Hatton (ph) will be here. This is an exclusive. She's a longtime best friend of Anna Nicole Smith.

And Howard Stern's sister will be aboard. And some legal experts will be here. And we'll be making some breaking news as well.

All that ahead at 9:00 Eastern, 6:00 Pacific, immediately following the very talented and dear friend John Roberts.

ROBERTS: Larry, thanks very much.

KING: I just feel so good about you tonight, John.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Larry. Mutual feelings.

KING: Go get 'em.

ROBERTS: Time for business break now.

(BUSINESS REPORT)

We're minutes away from the top of the hour and "LARRY KING LIVE" tonight. The latest from the Bahamas and the fight over Anna Nicole Smith's baby daughter. And Larry talks to Anna Nicole's long-time best friend.

Don't go away. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: And I'll be back in an hour from now to host "360." Anderson Cooper is traveling right now, so we'll be back at 10:00 Eastern.

That's all for tonight for the "PAULA ZAHN NOW" show. Tomorrow, with Valentine's Day just around the corner, romance with a twist of intolerance. We found a lonely hearts Web site with rules that you won't believe. Men have to be rich, women have to be beautiful, and nobody else should bother to apply.

Are they getting away with it? Tune in tomorrow.

Larry King is coming up. He's got more on the Anna Nicole Smith custody battle over her young child, as well as her estate. Where will those potential billions of dollars go?

I'll be back for "360" in an hour.

For Paula Zahn, I'm John Roberts.

Thanks for joining us. See you again soon.

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