Excerpted with permission from AANews, a publication of American Atheists.
July 11--Representatives from nearly a dozen national and local Atheist, Freethought, Secular Humanist and other nonbeliever organizations announced Tuesday a united effort to stop President George W. Bush's federal faith-based initiative.
Under the umbrella of "The Day That Counts," the groups pledged to mobilize their members for an unprecedented letter-writing campaign with the goal of having the country's diverse community of 27 million nonbelievers have their voices heard on Capitol Hill.
"The groups have an array of complaints against the initiative," wrote reporter Emily Rahe of The Washington Times, "but collectively agree that it is unjust and a violation of the First Amendment clause barring the establishment of religion."
It was the first time that such organizations appeared together in the nation's capitol, especially in the midst of a public policy debate which up until now has been dominated by religious groups and concerns.
In her introductory remarks, Ellen Johnson of American Atheists blasted the Bush proposal, and especially White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives director John DiIulio for urging that public tax money be used for the rehabilitation and upkeep of churches. Johnson warned that the faith-based plan program "promises to be the largest subsidy, the biggest entitlement program and the largest transfer of wealth from the public treasury to the coffers of religious organizations in this nation's history..."
Ed Buckner, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism told media, "Whenever public funds are spent, standards for hiring and firing must be set without religious discrimination."
Buckner added, "A woman who has had -- or wants to have -- an abortion must not be denied services based on religious objections to that. A gay man must not be turned away because someone considers him a 'sinner.' An atheist must not be denied employment or the right to public social services because of her lack of beliefs, nor should she have to hear a sermon to get either..."
Christopher Arntzen, Chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Atheists and Humanists, said that the faith-based initiative programs "pose a special threat to equal rights."
"Religious groups are free to discriminate against sexual minorities and are characteristically the source of the ideological rationale for homophobia," said Arntzen. "Faith-based discrimination is a fact of life: it ranges from firing by government-funded religious agencies to separation of the dying from their same-sex partners as a condition of treatment."
James Cook, a sociologist at Duke University and publisher of the "Further Than Atheism" column said that the faith-based initiative ran counter to the American tradition of dissent and disbelief. Referring to immigrants, Cook said, "They come here because the Constitution of the United States of America promises the right to disagree, the right to disbelieve. We celebrate this constitutional right not just because it is enshrined in the Constitution, but because we agree with it."
Cook charged that the Bush program amounted to licensing religion. "The President and his allies have said publicly they'd like to give churches States license: State license to demand prayer for a publicly-funded meal, to demand hosannas for a taxpayer-provided bed, to demand spiritual re-education sessions in exchange for publicly-funded medical treatment."
Doug Schiffer of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York told media that Bush and other government leaders have been promoting faith-based solutions to social problems.
"The unspoken assumption in this is that religious faith can solve society's deepest problems, and can do it inexpensively. The notion is that with 'faith' we can cure drug addicts, reduce violent crime, teach the illiterate and so on."
Schiffer added that "it's an appealing idea to many ... But there are questions that beg to be asked...Will it work? When has it ever worked? Is it constitutional to make all taxpayers pay for it?"
Organizers of "The Day That Counts" press conference said that next Tuesday, July 17 is "D-Day" for flooding Capitol Hill with letters, faxes and phone calls from outraged nonbelievers who oppose the imposition of a de facto "Religion Tax" in order to fund faith-based programs.
Ellen Johnson urged all of the groups who had signed up on "The Day That Counts" web page to mobilize their members.
"Congress needs to hear from groups other than churches or other religious organizations. This bill affects them because it would provide federal dollars, and ultimately promote their sectarian ministries. It also affects us, because we end up paying for it!"
Johnson was also optimistic about "The Day That Counts" campaign, and its impact on bringing diverse Atheist and other nonbeliever groups together on important issues.
"We still have a lot of differences, and no one organization can be all things to all people, especially if they are as independent and freethinking as Atheists and other 'people of no-faith,'" said Johnson. "But this was a big step forward for all us. It's helping to politicize a lot of organizations, and encourages us to get out and start talking not just to each other, but to lawmakers, media and public policy movers-and-shakers."
Johnson also noted that personal grudges and differences had been set aside. "This is evidence that we can work together on an ad hoc basis on important public policy issues," she said.