Update: The Secular Coalition for America’s Briefing with the Obama Administration

I’m back from the briefing. Here is some of what all went down.

After meeting in the Secular Coalition for America‘s offices in DC, we made the trek to the EEOB, where the policy briefing would take place:

Some of the nearly-60 attendees included American Atheists National Spokesperson Dave Silverman and Matt LaClair and Catherine Blackwell of the Secular Student Alliance:

The briefing essentially consisted of a few White House officials — no, you probably don’t know them — explaining the Obama administration’s views on our various issues, specifically, religious exemptions for child abuse, military proselytization, and Faith-Based discrimination.

[SCA Executive Director Sean] Faircloth told ABC News that the group will brief Tina Tchen and Paul Monteiro, the director and associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs; Bryan H. Samuels, Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at Health and Human Services; and Mazen Basrawi, Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice.

Interspersed with those talks were comments from leaders in our community on these issues.

For example, Kathleen Johnson, Military Director of American Atheists, spoke about military proselytization:

As part of the official briefing, American Atheists Vice President and Military Director Kathleen Johnson told White House representatives: “I have witnessed firsthand how service members who are openly non-theist have been harassed by their commanders, leaders, and peers, and have been disrespected by their subordinates for failing to hold certain religious beliefs.”

Johnson called for the Obama Administration to “demonstrate its commitment to improving the climate for non-theists by ensuring nominees to key senior leadership positions answer hard questions intended to identify if they hold views detrimental to non-theists and if so, that such views be considered a disqualification for that officer.”

One of the speakers I was most looking forward to hearing from was Liz Heywood, whose Christian Scientist parents denied her proper medical treatment as a child to care for her bone infection; instead, they just prayed for her. Not surprisingly, that failed. Her leg had permanent damage and three years ago (to the day), she had her leg amputated.

“I fell through the cracks at every turn,” Heywood said of her experience as a sick teen in a faith-healing home. “I am hoping I can make a difference with my story.”

Liz was unfortunately not able to attend because of weather issues, but she sent in a statement which was read by an SCA staffer. It was definitely the most powerful piece I’ve heard in a while (I’m hoping I can reprint it here soon).

So what do we take away from all this?

Will it do anything?

It’s tough to say. I think it’s important that the White House officials we met can now attach names and faces to our issues. They’re better educated about them and they can represent us a little better than before.

On the flip side, they’re not the policy makers. They can only take what we say and make recommendations to the relevant personnel.

In the meantime, we have to keep fighting for our issues and we need more people discussing them.

Still, this is the first time the White House has been willing to meet with atheists in such an official capacity and that’s a very positive step forward.

So what did the officials say in regards to our statements?

I can’t actually tell you.

[SCA Spokesperson] Paul Fidalgo… said he couldn’t offer any details about what Obama aides said in the meeting because of an agreement that their discussion be kept private.

President Obama — as expected — did not make an appearance.

Fidalgo said the went “very, very well” from the coalition’s perspective, that members were “encouraged by the reception we got today” and that they hope to be invited back for follow-up discussions.

I can, however, tell you what Catholic nutjob Bill Donohue had to say about the meeting:

People of faith, especially Christians, have good reason to wonder exactly where their interests lie with the Obama administration. Now we have the definitive answer. In an unprecedented move, leaders of a presidential administration are hosting some of the biggest anti-religious zealots in the nation.

If President Obama does not want to go to church, that is his business. But it is the business of the American people, most all of whom are believers, to know where the president and his administration stand with regards to their concerns. It is not likely that this outreach to anti-religious activists — many of whom would crush Christianity if they could — will do anything to calm the fears of people of faith. Indeed, it will only alienate them even further.

It is important that the public learn of the contents of this meeting. We will do what we can to find out what happened.

Right… He had a crazy partner-in-crime, too. Right wing group In God We Trust’s Chairman Bishop Council Nedd:

“It is one thing for Administration to meet with groups of varying viewpoints, but it is quite another for a senior official to sit down with activists representing some of the most hate-filled, anti-religious groups in the nation,” says In God We Trust’s Chairman Bishop Council Nedd.

“President Obama seems to believe that it is a good idea to have a key senior aide plan political strategy with people who believe faith in God is a disease,” Nedd says. “Some of the people in this coalition believe the world would be better off with no Christians and no Jews and they aren’t shy about it. The fact that this meeting is happening at all is an affront to the vast majority of people of all faiths who believe in God.”

Umm… I promise you we did not plot ways to kill off all religious people. We ran out of time for that.

Also, there were a number of Humanistic Jews in our group. I think they might take offense to Nedd’s comments… as would anyone else with a heart.

There’s nothing hateful about our group.

I doubt any of the right-wingers will listen, but one point all of our speakers made was that we were not looking for special treatment. We were there to support the right of all Americans to hold their religious beliefs — and reject them, too.

We were looking for religious neutrality coming from our government. We don’t want to be discriminated against. We don’t want children to be harmed because of their parent’s religious beliefs.

Those seem like statements anyone could get behind.

  • Allison

    They call us hateful?! Their choice of words shows that they are the hateful ones. Regardless, this is great news for the nonbelievers of America and hopefully it will result in more equality :)

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    That you get such a hateful response from the bigots shows you’re on the right track. Thanks for the update.

  • Jonas

    I wonder how Bill Donahue would react to the Liz Heywood story if instead of being a Christian Scientist, she were some off-shoot of Catholic.

    Story goes: My Grandmother nearly died due to complications of the the birth of my father. They would have refused to perform a necessary hysterectomy, as it was a Catholic hospital.
    My family being Jewish, we forced their hand.

  • MaleficVTwin

    Well, just look at those pictures. They’ve got to be some of the most hateful, angry people I’ve ever seen.

    /sarcasm

  • Hugh Kramer

    Great reporting, Hemant. I hope you’ll do more on it.

    Not everyone on the other side bashed us. Interestingly enough, CBN (the Christian Broadcasting Network) put out a very fair-minded report about the meeting.

    http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/politics/2010/February/White-House-Gives-Ear-to-Secularist-Group/

  • JulietEcho

    Most evangelical Christians would *love* for there to be no atheists! And they’re not gunning us down or plotting to poison us. They want to convince us with words, and they consider evangelizing a high calling and a holy purpose.

    Yet the few atheists who are 100% anti-theists only want to do the same thing – rid the world of religious people, by convincing them, using words.

    Atheists are often staunch defenders of religious rights – we just want to make sure that we’re treated fairly as well.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    activists representing some of the most hate-filled, anti-religious groups in the nation

    To whom he has never spoken, of course, which is why he can tell lies with such a confident tone of authority.

  • http://supercheetah.livejournal.com supercheetah

    @Hugh Kramer

    That is weird. CBN was quite even handed in their coverage.

  • gski

    The atheists are out to get you. Fear and hate play on our base instincts and so have a great influence. Politicians know it and some on the religious right do too.

  • garthhh

    Just think of it this way – this meeting would have never happened two years ago.

  • Paul

    Let’s keep our cool and let the bigots do the screaming. Reasonable people will see who the real zealots and radicals are.

  • muggle

    garthhh and paul said it well and absolutely right. Don’t take the bait. It is encouraging that our views and concerns were sought out.

    Exemptions for child abuse? I would have loved to have been there to give a piece of my mind on that one but Liz’ story is even more heartbreaking. To lose a leg to it…

    Religion shouldn’t be exempted from following any of the laws other citizens/entitities are bound by.

  • Richard Wade

    Heard through the rabid spittle of Mr Donohue:

    It is not likely that this outreach to anti-religious activists — many of whom would crush Christianity if they could…

    “Crush Christianity”? No, don’t worry Bill. It’ll be more like patiently watching it gradually disintegrate over the next 100 years through attrition and neglect. Nothing so theatrical as a crushing. Sorry to spoil your melodrama.

  • Stephen P

    I promise you we did not plot ways to kill off all religious people. We ran out of time for that.

    Anyone want to run a sweepstake on how long it will take the religious fanatics to misrepresent that paragraph as a serious statement of nefarious intent?

  • Mark Smith

    Many thanks to those in the coalition, who are speaking to the administration on my behalf!!!

  • Ceyda

    It is so unfortunate that we have to continuously deal with this mentality. These groups claim that being an atheist is rejecting god, and there’s nothing any one of us can say or do to explain the vital difference between a god-hating theist, and an atheist. It is true, we are NOT looking for special treatment, but unfortunately if we ever become successful in separating religion from any kind of policy those who have their religious influence on public matters will immediately see it precisely as special treatment.

  • Stephen

    Equality for religion will never be accomplished in Americs. i can promise you of that. if a law is passed pro-christian, atheists will fight back. if a pro-atheist law is passed, christians will fight back too. there can’t be religious equality in America because the very essence of tolerence is rejection of religions that aren’t yours. just look at, especially with atheists-the more they preach of tolerance, the more they’re screaming out against christianity.
    it’s a very sad day, when the man who runs our country is seeking to move out the very basic foundation of our nation-CHRISTIANITY!
    my prayer is that God will guide the hearts of desicion makers and lead us to stand without violence. we all have the right to use our voice, we don’t have a right to get violent(not that anyone is saying we’re getting violent) i’m just talking about the atheists that have been buring churches in Texas. so who are the Zealots now? it’s a very sad day when we preach of tolenance and acceptance when we’re fighting so hard to get rid of religions.

  • Neon Genesis

    They forgot to include the fact that atheists are evil baby eaters. Won’t someone think of the children?!

  • Carlie

    i’m just talking about the atheists that have been buring churches in Texas.

    The guy had one book on atheism and three Bibles. What makes you think he was an atheist, rather than a devout Christian trying to understand the arguments of those he hoped to convert?

    it’s a very sad day, when the man who runs our country is seeking to move out the very basic foundation of our nation-CHRISTIANITY!

    What is your explanation for the Treaty of Tripoli? Article 11, in particular.

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  • Jeff Dale

    The guy had one book on atheism and three Bibles

    And don’t forget all the violent, life-destroying passages in the bibles, in contrast to the complete absence of same in the atheist tome.

  • Hugh Kramer

    The guy had one book on atheism and three Bibles

    Don’t forget he also had a book titled “Demon Possession”. Interestingly enough, it turns out that it was published by the Christian Medical Society. That’s right, it’s a Christian theology book.

    Cute, eh?

  • Dale

    “i’m just talking about the atheists that have been buring churches in Texas.”

    Let’s see: three bibles were found in the home of one of the accused and a positive book on atheism was found in his GIRLFRIEND’S home.

    Christian logic: they’re all atheists!

  • ckitching

    “President Obama seems to believe that it is a good idea to have a key senior aide plan political strategy with people who believe faith in God is a disease,” Nedd says. “Some of the people in this coalition believe the world would be better off with no Christians and no Jews and they aren’t shy about it.”

    Yes, a lot of us would like to see these faiths die out (why no mention of Muslims, I wonder). However, both of these scaremongers are attempting to imply that secularists would like to see extermination or forcible conversion of believers. Christopher Hitchens is well known for taking an adversarial tone towards believers, so clearly he must favour extermination, right? Let’s see what he says in his book “God is not Great”:

    “Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could.”

    “I once wrote a book about George Orwell, who might have been my hero if I had heroes, and was upset by his callousness about the burning of churches in Catalonia in 1936. [...] I leave it to the faithful to burn each other’s churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can always be relied on to do.”

    I could pick out quotes like this from virtually any “new atheist” book, blog or essay. Even the often reviled PZ Myers has said similar things. Those who would advocate forcible conversion or extermination are usually subject to even worse criticism than we’d hit the average believer with.

  • http://ungoth.com Demopoly

    I’m rarely amazed at the spin, vitriol, and outright prevarication of people with vested interests in the status quo. They react with anger because their privilege has been threatened by the very idea of equality.

    We should never forget that the government is not our friend, and that more than 200 years of warmongering intolerance is the calling card of the United States. If you trust in the government or its processes, then you are destined for disappointment. I work in the government and I can tell you that these processes are all but alien to life itself.

    The only reason we haven’t nuked the planet is because the government we have isn’t capable of making such decisions. Acts of clear leadership often skirt all the rules, and most of the laws.

  • paola

    it’s a great news. the sooner america gets more atheist ( start recognising atheist rights and turn into a more secular and humanist society), the sooner europe will do the same.

  • http://www.DangerousTalk.net DangerousTalk

    What do you mean that you can’t tell us? I have a few things to say about that. First, the Obama Administration has claimed to be an administration which supports transparency in government. On their side of the fence such a policy of secrecy goes against everything they claimed they stood for. From your side of the fence, you were there to represent the greater atheist community and therefore have no right to keep the community you represent in the dark. If atheists can’t count on atheist groups to inform us of what exactly happened than what good are these atheist groups?

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  • blagga

    paola, (or anyone)

    What are “atheist rights”?

  • Daniel

    Stephen: “…there can’t be religious equality in America because the very essence of tolerence[sic] is rejection of religions that aren’t yours.”

    Dear President Obama… While you work on repairing the broken equality we all thirst for, please also repair our education system. Some people still believe logical contradictions are relevant arguments.

    Kudos to the Administration for taking that first step. May we see religious neutrality in our lifetimes.

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