Here’s something that didn’t happen during the last administration: On Friday, White House officials met with the leaders of several atheist groups to hear their concerns. (The last time this happened was 2010. Update: Apologies on my end. There was one other meeting in 2013.)
The requests, as described by the groups, were fairly straightforward. None of them involved special perks for atheists; it was all about maintaining church/state separation and equality under the law.
We stressed the importance of rescinding harmful and discriminatory Trump administration actions, like the Faith-Based Social Services rules and Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice memo, and urged that actions going forward better reflect the more historical and pluralistic vision of religious freedom. A suggested action we proposed was the support of judicial nominees with strong stances on religious equality as well as those who are nonreligious.
American Atheists got even more specific:
American Atheists will continue to advocate for more robust protections for Americans seeking services from religious providers to ensure that no one is turned away from a shelter, an adoption or foster agency, or denied access to any other basic service due to religiously motivated discrimination. And if this administration fails to live up to its obligations under the Constitution or its commitments to religious equality and representation for nonreligious Americans, we will hold them accountable.
There’s a legitimate argument to have about whether the government should do any kind of faith outreach, even if it’s inclusive, but if the office exists, then it’s important to reach out to the non-religious like the government frequently does with the religious. This may have been symbolic at best — it’s not like those White House representatives have the power to rewrite policy. But the can set expectations and be at the table when high-level decisions are made. The last administration effectively ignored everyone except right-wing Christians. This one’s at least not pretending like we don’t exist. If nothing else, it’s a way to remind the administration not to play favorites with religious groups because we’re paying attention.
Now let’s wait and see how many conservative groups flip out over the mere existence of this meeting. A decade ago, there were a number of unnecessarily angry reactions from the right. They acted like the White House had made some kind of secret deal with atheists. We’ll see what they say this time around, but remember that this was a conversation without promises. It was a chance to open a dialogue with people from the White House, not a way to funnel a godless agenda to the government.
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