The Secular Coalition for America Met with White House Representatives… Will It Help?

Earlier today, the Secular Coalition for America announced that they had met with representatives from the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It marked the first time since February of 2010 that an official, publicized meeting like this took place:

(from left to right) SCA Advisory Board member Wendy Kaminer, CFI’s Michael DeDora, AA’s Amanda Knief, Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, OFBNP Director Melissa Rogers, MAAF’s Jason Torpy, SCA’s Edwina Rogers, AHA’s Maggie Ardiente, and SCA’s Aisha Goss (via secular.org)

This month, Secular Coalition for America Executive Director, Edwina Rogers, along with several representatives from the nontheistic community, held a meeting with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The purpose of the meeting was to brief the Administration on secular and nontheistic issues, and to establish better lines of communication that can ultimately lead to greater nontheistic involvement.

“We are pleased that the White House is looking at ways to better include the nontheistic community,” said Edwina Rogers. “The Administration seemed to recognize the need for nontheistic inclusion and seemed open to finding areas where we can work together. We hope this meeting will lead to increased cooperation going forward.”

Two things.

First, that’s wonderful news. It’s great to see representatives from our community meeting with people who have a direct line to the President. Politico reported that the SCA was “pleased” with the meeting.

Second, it’s worth noting that the SCA’s press release is *very* vague. We don’t know what they discussed or what the take-away messages were. Hell, we don’t even know when this meeting took place, only that it happened earlier this month.

I spoke with the SCA’s Communications Manager Lauren Anderson Youngblood today to try and fill in some of these blanks… to little avail. She couldn’t tell me much more than what had been written in the press release.

But here’s what we do know.

The SCA requested the meeting and Melissa Rogers‘ office agreed to it. Given Rogers’ history as a supporter of church-state separation, it’s not unexpected. Still, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.

Since that meeting in 2010, atheist organizations haven’t had much of a dialogue with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). If this meeting leads to further discussions, great.

What issues did they discuss? We have no idea, but I’m hoping some of these questions were raised:

  • Will churches (like all other non-profits) be required to disclose their financial statements?
  • Will the government make sure that tax-exempt churches are not promoting political candidates from the pulpit (a la “Pulpit Sunday”)?
  • Why can church groups that receive taxpayer money through the OFBNP discriminate against LGBT individuals during the hiring process?
  • When will we finally get an atheist on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships?
  • Why does the OFBNP even exist?!

Youngblood wouldn’t give me specifics, but said that “they spoke about the inclusion of nontheists by the administration and other issues that were both policy-based as well as symbolic overtures.”

But, again, speaking about those topics doesn’t mean any action was taken (or even proposed) on them.

It’s possible that if these discussions between atheists and the White House remain private, there’s a better chance we’ll see steps in the right direction since the Religious Right won’t be tipped off and right-wing websites can’t pretend like the administration is “anti-Christian”… but that’s an annoying dichotomy: Publicize the topics being discussed and risk conservatives freaking out over them (and getting their based worked up over it) or keep the topics private and get a bit closer to significant changes being made.

Are you willing to live with that tension?

I guess what we can hope for is that this is only the first of many meetings to come. The more the two groups talk, the more likely it is that some real action steps will eventually be taken.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Smiles

    This game is terrible and devoid of conscience…but IF we must play… I say, game on.

    My only reservation being, a secret system is often also a corrupt system. How do we maintain accountability in secret meetings, when we cannot hold any politician accountable for what is said in public…albeit, partly due to attention span.

  • Bdole

    Why do they all look like vampires?

    • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

      I don’t know what you’re on about. I don’t see any sparkle.

      • Bdole

        Oh, er…I meant werewolves.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Horrible photo quality. Is that from someone’s cell phone?

  • Zugswang

    Whatever issues are discussed, if someone attempts to implement them, will become public at one point or another, and it’s not as if right wing groups are unpracticed at quickly fomenting panic and umbrage in the usual suspects.

    I think the best approach is being open with our intent, and we have been in many other venues. Keeping the message of what we seek in the public sphere is how a group gains allies, like how the LGBT movement has largely operated. The core message is simple and is the same for any movement for a group’s civil rights, “We are the same as the rest of this country’s citizens, and we believe we should be treated as such.” The difficulty for many of the things we’re seeking, such as stricter requirements for tax-exempt status of religious orgs, is that they deprive some very powerful interests of a very real monetary privilege, as opposed to simple moral influence. This will be a challenge even if we attempt to do it behind closed doors, but we won’t have the diversity of allies we might otherwise have if we had a much more public pursuit of equality.

    To add: Also with private meetings, there’s nothing firm to hold officials to. Issues that are discussed quietly can disappear even more quietly, and we just wasted a lot of effort that could have been directed towards more public campaigning.

  • LesterBallard

    How long before some Christian seriously talks about some of their eyes showing that demons are ibvolved?

  • WoodyTanaka

    I’m not really sure that this is anything other than the Washington system co-opting what should be the opposition. The problem, in my view, isn’t when Washington ignores the non-theist community, but when they don’t ignore the religious community. They shouldn’t be begging for inclusion in the Faith-Based Group, they should be pressing for it to be banned. All this does is remove a source of opposition and gives the opponents of this Faith-Based nonsense nothing in return.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Tanner B James

    Those people can’t be Atheist’s because no true Atheist would dare to wear business suits or even business casual. Where is the obligatory FSM T-shirt, bluejeans and sandals?

  • ortcutt

    What does secularism have to do with an office whose very purpose is against secularism? I would see the point of the SCA meeting with civil rights officials, because vigorous enforcement of the Establishment Clause is a civil rights issue, but this makes no sense.

  • Fred

    It’s a step in the right direction, at least. I wrote the White House after that interfaith memorial for the Boston bombing and all I got back was a shoddy letter that absolutely did not address my concerns at all.

  • anonymous

    > Will it help?

    No. The White House isn’t about helping society, it is about spying on people, staging spy chase dramas and sending threats to everybody.


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