Imagine retired Bible teacher Rick Stone’s surprise to find himself depicted as a “Godless American.”

This week, Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole began running a statewide 30-second TV ad linking her opponent, Kay Hagan, to a political action committee that supports equal rights for atheists and the separation of church and state. “A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan’s honor,” says a female voice, as ominous music plays underneath. The ad plays snippets of interviews with prominent atheists before the announcer continues: “Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras, took godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?” It ends with a grimacing photo of Hagan and the off-camera voice of the PAC’s executive director, Ellen Johnson, saying, “There is no God.”

While the Dole campaign produced the 30-second spot, the National Republican Senatorial Committee created a longer version, which runs almost three minutes and can be seen on YouTube.

Hagan did attend a Sept. 15 political fundraiser in Boston hosted by Democratic U.S. Sen. John Kerry and about three dozen others. It was held at the home of Woody Kaplan, a former shopping-center developer and Godless Americans PAC advisory board member. The event was not sponsored by the PAC, nor was it secret.

Both ads feature shadowy photographs of Hagan standing next to a nameless gray-haired man—presumably one of those atheists to whom the Democrat is allegedly indebted. He is, in fact, Charles Frederick (Rick) Stone III, who currently studies theology at the Harvard Divinity School. Until his 2007 move to Boston, Stone lived in Greensboro and taught Biblical studies at Greensboro College, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and Guilford College, which draws on Quaker tradition.

His courses have included Old and New Testament, religious law, and the teachings of Jesus. Stone himself is Episcopalian and a believer in God.

Stone met Hagan in the late 1990s, when he taught Sunday school at Greensboro’s First Presbyterian Church. Hagan is an elder at First Presbyterian, and her family has attended for more than 100 years. “My dad enjoys teaching the Bible, so he would teach at different local churches,” says Stone’s son Charlie, who lives in Durham and works at Duke University. Stone and his wife struck up a friendship with Hagan and her husband, and the couples remain close friends. “I don’t have any doubts about Kay Hagan’s faith,” the elder Stone says.

When Stone learned that Hagan would be attending a fundraiser in his new hometown, he and his wife decided to join her. Would it be safe to assume that this was not billed as a political event for atheists? “That would be an inference I think you could make, given the fact that she attended and I attended,” he says.

The ad has provoked a firestorm since yesterday. Lawyers for Hagan sent Dole’s campaign a cease-and-desist order, demanding the ad be pulled from the air. Dole’s campaign has refused. “Elizabeth Dole should be absolutely ashamed of herself,” Hagan wrote in an e-mail to supporters yesterday. “Her latest ad is fabricated and pathetic. Our nation is in a crisis and the only solution Elizabeth Dole has to offer is mud and slime and more of the same.”

The Charlotte Observer called the ad “indecent,” comparing it to the doctored photo of UNC President Frank Porter Graham’s wife dancing with an African-American man during the 1950 Senate race. “It has no place in N.C. politics. Unless she admits this egregious, shameful mistake and acts appropriately, Elizabeth Dole has no place in N.C. politics, either.”

Dole spokesman Hogan Gidley insists the ad did not imply that Stone is a non-believer, or even that the fundraiser was an atheist event. “There were people there of several different, I’m sure, religious backgrounds,” he says. “I’m sure there were some Christians there. But we know there to be some atheists there.”

“This whole thing is not about religion,” Gidley says. “It’s about a radical agenda from a group that wants to take ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ off the money, and not allow Christmas to be a federal holiday. Members of the Senate vote to confirm judges at all levels of government. And the battlefront for these cases against God in our public square are fought in local courts.” (That’s not quite true: Senators confirm federal judges.)

Charlie Stone doesn’t buy Gidley’s argument that the ad wasn’t about faith. “It was obviously misrepresenting Kay—who she is and who she associates with—and pathetic that we’d get to the point of lying about an opponent’s religion when we’re fighting two wars and on the verge of depression. It’s surreal to wake up and see your dad used in an attack ad. The fact that it’s so divergent from everything he is, is just unbelievably ridiculous.”