On Friday, July 22, I had the amazing opportunity to stand up at a nationally televised town hall meeting at the University of Maryland and tell President Barack Obama that I am an atheist—with a smile on my face. Then I asked him why he was still allowing faith-based organizations that receive taxpayer funding to discriminate in their hiring practices. Unlike me, the president wasn’t smiling. But I got him to talk about a policy that many of us in the nontheist community as well as our religious allies have been fighting to reverse since President George W. Bush put it in place by executive order in 2002.
Right up until Election Day in November 2012, our elected officials—and those who want to be our elected officials—are going to give us this kind of opportunity to stand up, declare ourselves as part of the nontheistic community, and ask them how they will represent us if they are elected or reelected. Members of the secular community should be in the audience of every town hall meeting and campaign event in every town and city across the county—no matter the party affiliation or the candidate.
Since the 2010 election, there has been a major assault on civil liberties under the guise of cutting spending and reducing the deficit. It is vital that our community take advantage of the general outcry that has occurred against these actions, at both the state and national levels. It is vital that secular Americans push back by asking public policy questions that aren’t usually deemed pertinent to the national conversation.
So stand up and ask any Democrat, Republican, or other candidate:
- Why do clergy get housing allowances in the tax code that no one else does—especially when many nonprofit organizations perform similar humanitarian work without any reciprocal benefit?
- Why do parents get to deny their children life-saving medical treatment for religious reasons? Why do parents get to opt their children out of vision, dental, and hearing screenings for the same religious reasons? Why is it acceptable for children to be harmed for religious reasons when there is no other reason under law that permits such abuse?
- Why do religiously affiliated child-care centers in fourteen states get exemptions from health and safety requirements that all other child-care centers must adhere to?
- How will the candidate support the nontheistic community if elected? Will he or she support the National Day of Prayer?
Local-level election officials need our attention also. It is vital that our secular community begins to develop relationships with local elected officials based on issues both sides care about. We don’t have to agree—but sharing concerns and ideas is a great way to start an open dialogue.
For any single nontheist or a group, begin by making an appointment to tell your local representative that your nontheistic community exists. Don’t necessarily expect to meet with your representative in person. If you do, great. But if not, no worries! Elected officials hire staff they trust to bring them ideas and concerns from the community, and staff members are often the ones who suggest changes in policy to elected officials. When you have your appointment, make sure that you aren’t just saying “We exist.” You need a reason for the elected official to care why you exist. Prepare information such as the number of nontheists in your area, community, or state. Or if you are visiting to discuss a particular issue or policy, give the elected official a reason why he or she should also care, why the issue matters in the community at large, or simply why taking the position you favor will make him or her look good!
The Secular Coalition for America’s staff, its ten member organizations (including the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry), and every person who makes a contribution or who responds to an e-mailed Action Alert are helping to increase the awareness of secular Americans as a whole in Washington, D.C.
But consider this: At least 38 percent of current members of Congress once held elected office at the local or state level. These officials were much easier to reach before they became federal elected officials. So as the nontheistic movement goes forward, reach out to your local officials, make sure they have a positive interaction with nontheists in their community, and start a dialogue about mutually concerning issues.
Until our community has equal representation in elected office, we need to ask elected officials to be our secular allies: just ask them to support nontheists’ rights for equal representation and treatment under law. They don’t have to give up their religious beliefs to believe that everyone is entitled to be treated equally.
Finally, until Election Day 2012, remember to ask—nicely!—every person who wants to represent you how he or she will support nontheists, protect the separation of church and state, and end religious privileging in law. Let’s get them on the record, whatever their answers are, so we know where they stand. And in doing so, let the whole nation see and hear us as nontheists. This is our time to stand up and make a difference.
She Said, He Said
The following is a transcript of the exchange between Secular Coalition of America’s Amanda Knief and President Barack Obama at a “town hall” meeting this past July at the University of Maryland. —Eds.
Amanda Knief: Hello, Mr. President, my name is Amanda Knief. And I’m a big fan. I’m from Iowa originally.
President Barack Obama: Nice!
Knief: Yes! I’m an atheist. In Zanesville, Ohio, in 2008 you asserted that no organization receiving taxpayer funds would be able to discriminate in hiring or firing based on a person’s religion. However, you have not rescinded the executive order that permits this type of discrimination. In a time of economic hardship, when it is difficult for a person to get a job based on her skills, what would you say to a woman who was denied employment based on her religion, or lack of religious beliefs, by a taxpayer-funded organization?
President Obama: Well, this is a very difficult issue. But a more narrow one than I think might be implied. It’s very straightforward that people shouldn’t be discriminated against for race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or religious affiliation. What has happened is that there has been a carve out dating back to President Clinton’s presidency, for religious organizations in their hiring for particular purposes.
And this is always a tricky part of the First Amendment. On the one hand, the First Amendment ensures that there is freedom of religion; on the other hand, we want to make sure that religious bodies are abiding by general laws. And so where this issue has come up in fairly narrow circumstances, where for example, you’ve got a faith-based organization that’s providing certain services they consider part of their mission to be promoting their religious views, but they may have a daycare center associated with the organization, or they may be running a food pantry. And so then the question is, does a Jewish organization have to hire a non-Jewish person as part of that organization?
Now, I think that the balance we tried to strike is to say that if you are offering—if you’ve set up a nonprofit that is disassociated from your core religious functions and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work—then you have to abide, generally, with the nondiscrimination hiring practices. If, on the other hand, it is closer to your core functions as a synagogue or a
mosque or a church then there may be more leeway for you to hire somebody who is a believer of that particular religious faith.
It doesn’t satisfy everybody. I will tell you that a lot of faith-based organizations think we are too restrictive in how we define those issues. There are others, like you obviously, that think we are not restrictive enough. I think we’ve struck the right balance so far, but this is something we continue to be in dialogue with faith-based organizations about to try to make sure that their hiring practices are as open and as inclusive as possible. Ok? Thank you.