Woman says non-belief kept her out of Elks

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

BROOKINGS, Ore. _ If you met Billie Sieg on the streets of Brookings, on the south Oregon coast, you might think she’s a sweet old lady.

And Sieg is sweet, although she might not like the “old” part of the description. “I turned 80,” she says, “but I’m in denial. Eighty is old, and I still feel 40.”

Sieg is a friendly person; someone recently described her as the mascot of her neighborhood.

But there aren’t a lot of nice places in Brookings for friendly people to meet or share an evening with others, she says. “We have a senior center, but you don’t hear of people going there and doing things. They serve some lunches.”

And you certainly can’t get a cocktail, or go dancing or have a nice dinner there. Just about all the city offers to the public, Sieg says, is a couple of motel restaurants and some “tavern-type places.”

So Sieg decided to join the Elks club. She’d been there with friends who are members. “It’s a very nice facility. I wanted the contacts, and a dining room and bar where I could take guests. I remember going there to a Valentine’s dance, and it was lots of fun.”

She also really likes the idea that the Elks “do a lot of good things around here.” She admires their public-service ethic.

It wasn’t hard to find two friends to sponsor her membership. Soon Sieg was invited to the club for an interview.

It was going fine, she says, until the man asking the questions asked if she believes in God.

Now, Sieg knows the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks requires that its members believe in God. It’s right on their Web site (http://www.elks.org).

Two women friends had urged her to lie if she was asked about her belief in God.

Because, you see, Sieg is an atheist.

It’s not like she stands on street corners, trying to persuade others that God does not exist. She’s a quiet atheist. “In today’s world a belief in God can take a lot of forms. I happen to be an unbeliever in supernatural deities, but I do believe in Mother Nature” and the holiness of “the world around us.”

When the man asked if Sieg believed in God, “should I have said yes and avoided problems? How do I know what the term `God’ means to them?”

Sieg said she did not believe in God. “And his whole attitude changed,” she says. Days later, Sieg received a letter denying her membership in the Elks club. She had been hoping the requirement to believe in God was “a throwback,” something that wouldn’t be a factor in today’s membership decisions.

She was wrong.

Sieg understands the club has a right to decide who can join. “It’s a private club,” she says. But she thinks the Elks should get rid of the required belief in God. She thinks it’s religious discrimination.

The thing that really upsets her is the other news delivered in the letter, which was written by the lodge secretary in Brookings, Charles W. Sallander. “You are not permitted access to the lodge facility for any Elks social function, even as a guest.”

Even as a guest.

This means Sieg will no longer be able to join friends who are Elks members for a steak dinner or an evening of dancing at the lodge.

Contacted by phone this week, Sallander first said, “She’s not excluded as a guest. We don’t want anybody going away feeling they’re being discriminated against.”

But after checking the language of his letter, he said Sieg will not, in fact, be allowed to enter the club as a guest at Elks functions. She can enter the facility if the Elks have an event they open to the public. Otherwise she is not welcome.

“We are a private organization, and we do have certain rights of membership,” Sallander said, “and one of those is you have to believe in God. Or if you’re not an American citizen, then you’re not welcome to join us. We’re not saying we’re going to exclude you from our friendship, we’re just going to exclude you from our membership.”

Thirty years ago, millions of Americans were “excluded” from the Elks. By national charter, African-Americans couldn’t be “brothers” in the BPOE until the 1970s. Women weren’t allowed to be Elks until the mid-1990s.

Atheists are still banned.

Sieg has not threatened a lawsuit. She actually feels bad for her friends who sponsored her application; she likes them very much. “My only intent is to bring this organization at least into the 20th century.”

Underlying the issue is the question of why atheists are excluded. Is someone worried atheism is contagious? Or dangerous?

“And you can’t tell me they screen every guest who comes in for their religious beliefs,” Sieg says. In all the times she has been a guest in the past, no one ever asked if she believed in God.

Sieg wonders if she is the only person in town banned as a guest at Elks lodge functions. It doesn’t feel good.

Still, she’s glad she didn’t lie. “I’m not ashamed of my atheism,” she says. “In fact, I think people need to know we don’t have two heads. We’re good people. We have ethics.”

Atheists know right from wrong, Sieg says. And this feels wrong.

“I don’t want to cause them trouble. I just want them to rethink this regulation, because it’s not fair. And it will never be changed unless somebody makes it public.”

(Margie Boule writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)

KRE/RB END BOULEA photo of Billie Sieg is available via https://religionnews.com.

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