Betty Simonsma, a model of traditional family values who championed unpopular views about religion in society as a leading Sacramento atheist, died Feb. 7 after several months of hospice care for health problems, her family said. She was 88.
A homemaker, devoted wife and mother of five, Mrs. Simonsma was “proud of her non-belief in a culture suffused with belief in God,” according to a 1995 profile story in The Bee. She hosted a meeting at her rural Calvine Road home for like-minded people in 1993 and became a founding member of Atheists and Other Freethinkers. She was named president two years later and encouraged members to speak out about their views on religion.
“Most of the people do not tell anyone they’re an atheist,” she told The Bee in 1995. “We have people who don’t even give their last names because they’re afraid for their business. I think that’s a shame. We have every right in the world to be proud of our thinking skills.”
Mrs. Simonsma actively supported the separation of church and state. She wrote letters to lawmakers and newspaper editors opposing prayer in public schools, vouchers for religious schools, and teaching of creationism in science classes. She argued that tax exemptions for churches amounted to government support for religion.
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She called for the Legislature to stop opening sessions with prayers. On a visit to the state Senate, she refused to stand during the religious invocation, despite arm-waving and glares from the sergeant-at-arms.
“She was a very quiet and gentle woman, but she was very firm in her beliefs,” friend Mynga Futrell said. “She was very courageous.”
Mrs. Simonsma endured public criticism and personal slights for her outspokenness. The prominently displayed profile story in The Bee drew angry letters attacking her views as an atheist. Several days later, her appearance at a longtime bridge club was met with awkward silence.
“She said, ‘I know those ladies saw the article, and not one of them commented on it, even though I’ve sat next to them for years listening to them talk about their religious beliefs,’ ” said her daughter Merle. “She was really hurt that her values didn’t get the same kind of conversation that people gave religious values.”
The seventh of eight children raised by farmers, Betty Ann Johansen was born April 30, 1925, in Polk County, Neb. She attended a one-room elementary school and boarded with a family in another town to attend high school.
She moved to Los Angeles and worked for Douglas Aircraft during World War II. She married Merle E. Simonsma, a bridge engineer for the California Department of Transportation, and settled 55 years ago in Sacramento. They raised a family on 7 acres near Elk Grove, where she milked cows before going to classes to earn a teaching credential at California State University, Sacramento.
Mrs. Simonsma had her children baptized as Methodists but stopped going to church decades ago when she learned that members were racially segregated in the South. She said that she “did not make a big deal of atheism or religion” at home – except once, when her young children went to a Baptist summer school and returned with religious material that said they had been born in sin and their souls were black.
“I was just appalled,” she told The Bee. “I got down and hugged them, and I said, ‘No, this is not true, this is not true at all. Your soul is not black, and nobody has to save you. You’re great, and you’re perfect.’ And I threw the stuff in the wastebasket, and they never went back. ... I am against the teaching of unnecessary fear and guilt in our lives.”
Besides teaching during the 1970s at William Daylor High School, Mrs. Simonsma was a talented homemaker. She made her children’s clothes with expert skills in sewing, smocking and embroidering. She painted, sanded, stained and wallpapered every room in her home. She had a creative eye for interior design, and her favorite pastime was painting china.
“Her platters and vases are quite exquisite,” her daughter said.
In addition to her husband of 61 years, Mrs. Simonsma is survived by her sons Tim and Neal; daughters Deborah Sprock, Merle and Claudia Fletcher; nine grandchildren; and five grandchildren. No service is planned.