Obama Aides to Meet with Secular Coalition, Atheists on White House Grounds

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McClatchy Newspapers

Obama Aides to Meet with Secular Coalition, Atheists on White House Grounds

by
Margaret Talev

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has burnished his Christian
credentials, courted Jewish support and preached outreach toward
Muslims. On Friday, his administration will host a group that fits none
of the above: America's nonbelievers.

The president isn't expected to make an appearance at the meeting with
the Secular Coalition for America or to unveil any new policy as a
result of it.

Instead,
several administration officials will sit down quietly for a morning
meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House
campus with about 60 workhorses from the coalition's 10 member groups,
including the American Atheists and the Council for Secular Humanism.
Tina Tchen, the director of the White House Office of Public
Engagement, and representatives from the Justice and Health and Human
Services departments will participate.

Coalition
leaders are billing their visit as an important meeting between a
presidential administration and the "nontheist" community. On the
agenda are three policy areas: child medical neglect, military
proselytizing and faith-based initiatives.

"We're raising
important issues that affect real people's lives," said Sean Faircloth,
49, a former Maine state legislator who's the coalition's executive
director.

White House spokesman Shin Inouye downplayed the
meeting, saying only that Tchen's office "regularly meets with a wide
range of organizations and individuals on a diverse set of issues."

The
coalition's board includes such controversy magnets as authors Salman
Rushdie ("The Satanic Verses") and Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not
Great"), as well as Michael Newdow, the Sacramento, Calif., doctor who
argued against allowing the words "under God" in the Pledge of
Allegiance before the Supreme Court, but didn't prevail. South Carolina
activist Herb Silverman founded the coalition in 2002. It's had a
Washington office and a lobbyist since 2005.

"Despite what we
hear from Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin, we're in a stage in history where
millions upon millions of Americans share a secular perspective on
American public policy," Faircloth said. "We think the real 'silent
majority,' if you will, is the Americans who say, 'Enough of this
religious and even theocratic nature to American policy.' "

The
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found in a 2008 survey before
Obama's election that a majority of Americans, 52 percent to 45
percent, think that churches should stay out of politics. That
sentiment had changed from three election cycles back, 1996, when 54
percent favored churches expressing political views.

Still,
nearly three-fourths of Americans told Pew in December 2009 that they
attend religious services each year. Americans also told Pew that month
that the Republican Party seems friendlier toward religion than
Democrats do, but that Obama seems friendlier toward religion than most
Democrats are.

The coalition doesn't embrace all the Obama
administration's stances, but members think that they have more of a
kindred spirit in the president than in his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama
once taught constitutional law. His late mother was spiritual but
agnostic. His inaugural address is credited as the first by a U.S.
president to include explicit recognition of "nonbelievers" as part of
the fabric of the nation.

Coalition members plan to use Friday's
meeting to advocate closing federal loopholes in the law that governs
medical neglect. They say that officials in any state should be able to
remove sick children who need medical treatment from homes in which
parents believe in faith healing as easily as they could intervene on
behalf of other children.

Liz Heywood, of Ithaca, N.Y., said she
was 13 when she contracted a bone infection that her Christian
Scientist parents wouldn't seek medical attention to treat. She
experienced permanent damage, and three years ago, at 45, had the leg
amputated above the knee.

Heywood planned to fly to Washington to
participate in the coalition meeting until fresh snow left her stuck in
New York. She'll participate by speaker phone.

"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."

Other coalition activists have concerns about
proselytizing in the military and a rise in the military's evangelical
culture. They want the Department of Defense to give protected-class
status to nonbelievers, as it does to members of minority religions.

On
faith-based initiatives, the coalition differs from the president in
opposing taxpayer funding of all faith-based groups. Obama has
emphasized that faith-based groups that receive government money for
charitable work shouldn't proselytize or discriminate on the basis of
religion. Faircloth said the president should formalize that position
through an executive order.

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