The Freedom From Religion Foundation and five other secular organizations met with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships on Friday afternoon, and made a little welcome history.
Representatives from FFRF, the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, Ex-Muslims of North America and the Secular Coalition for America, which set up the meeting, met with Executive Director Melissa Rogers, Deputy Director Josh Dickson and Program Specialist Ben O’Dell.
“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,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said, who was present along FFRF Co-President Dan Barker and FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel.
The cordial meeting, which included discussions of secular priorities, marks a break from the previous administration, where Paula White ruled the roost and meetings began with prayer.
The current meetings have no prayer, no bragging about how religion is being inserted into the federal government. There has been no attempt to funnel government funds to these groups, and much of the emphasis has been messaging on the importance and availability of vaccines. FFRF representatives have been attending and monitoring all of the calls.
FFRF blew the lid off a series of secretive calls the Trump White House held to reassure churches that they could and should request forgivable loans under various SBA programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). In one call, Trump-allied faith leaders were assured by the federal government that even a discriminatory fly-by-night “church” that provides absolutely no secular social services, and of which the owner is the sole employee, could have its wages covered by taxpayers during the PPP time period. These assurances were made a full two weeks before the SBA released its final rule on eligibility, showing that it had no interest in considering public comments.
Another call was even more explicit, with churches urged to apply for PPP funds before the deadline. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, reported that the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute, which took in $350,000–$1 million, “has literally been kept solvent . . . by the Paycheck Protection Plan (sic)” (44:30). Dobson noted with obvious glee that in 43 years of leading two faith-based ministries, he had “never asked for, nor received, one cent from the federal government” (43:49), expressing his surprise that taxpayer funds could now flow to his ministry.
While FFRF maintains that it is inappropriate for any government action to turn religious Americans into an “in” crowd while secular Americans are “outsiders,” the current White House faith-based office has turned a blatantly Christian nationalist outfit into an office that explicitly acknowledges the separation between religion and government. That’s a step in the right direction.