(RNS) — Representatives of atheist and secular groups held their first meeting with White House officials last week, marking a willingness by the Biden administration to work with the growing networks of religiously unaffiliated Americans.
The Secular Coalition for America set up the Friday (May 14) meeting with Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Leaders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Secular Coalition for America, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry and Ex-Muslims of North America also attended the virtual gathering that included Josh Dickson, deputy director of the office, and program specialist Ben O’Dell.
“Frankly, it always feels like we are making history when we are included or invited anywhere,” Debbie Allen, executive director of the Secular Coalition, told Religion News Service.
“Historically, organizations like ours that focus on the needs of non-believers, nontheists, atheists, humanists, freethinkers, etc., are often disregarded when it comes to ‘interfaith spaces.’”
Rogers welcomed the opportunity to cooperate with nonreligious groups, alongside the faith organizations that have engaged with her office.
“The Partnerships Office continues to meet with a wide range of faith and community leaders,” she said in a statement to Religion News Service. “We are grateful to hear from diverse Americans and to explore opportunities to work together to serve people in need.”
Allen said staffers who are part of the coalition’s 19 member organizations of freethinkers, agnostics, humanists and other secular Americans have been attending the weekly meetings held by the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Biden restarted the office with a Feb. 14 executive order, revamping it after the initiative went largely unstaffed during the Trump administration.
Allen said the coalition remains concerned about the effect of the previous administration’s policies related to faith-based social services and is urging consideration of new policies to better protect the religious liberty of beneficiaries and to ensure the separation of church and state by government officials.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, welcomed the first meeting with the new administration.
“With more than a quarter of the population identifying as a ‘None’ (no religion), it’s vital that our community, our voices be heard in favor of reason in social policy and upholding our secular government,” she said in a statement.
Gaylor, who attended the meeting with two other staffers of her organization, said the FFRF also has listened to faith-based office calls in the current and past administrations. She also attended the State Department’s 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
The Friday meeting followed previous meetings that representatives of the secular community had with the Obama administration in 2010 and 2013.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said he considered the latest meeting to be problematic.
“If the Biden administration is going to manipulate the founding purpose of faith-based initiatives by welcoming the advice of militant secularists, it would do us all a favor and simply trash this office,” he said in a statement. “It is obviously a bust.”
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