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PostPosted: 07 Mar 2010, 20:23 
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From the Executive Director
by Tom Flynn

On Taking a Seat at the Table

Getting into the White House (okay, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just next door) is only slightly easier than getting onto an airplane. You get to keep your shoes on.

The scene was somewhat surreal on Friday, February 26. The bulletproof glass enclosures. The metal detectors. The taut-backed security agents whose ribbed sweaters couldn’t quite hide the telltale bulges of their body armor.

And milling through the checkpoints with me? Damn near everyone I know among the leaders of America’s “nonbeliever” organizations: Ed Buckner, president of American Atheists and some years ago executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism; Roy Speckhardt of the American Humanist Association; and Secular Coalition for America (SCA) founder Herb Silverman. (A few friends I’d looked forward to seeing weren’t there because a snowstorm had stranded them in New York City.) With me were the other members of the Council for Secular Humanism’s delegation: CFI/Office of Public Policy director Toni van Pelt, CFI/D.C. director Melody Hensley, and CFI/D.C. science adviser Stuart Jordan.

We were all there to spend an hour and a half exchanging views with the Obama administration in a White House briefing arranged by SCA (of which the Council is a member).

Perhaps sixty secular humanists, religious humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers, and more than half a dozen officials of the administration, gathered in a spacious auditorium in the Executive Office Building.

The Council Delegation: Melody Hensley, Tom Flynn, Stuart Jordan, and Toni van Pelt

White House rules preclude me from identifying the officials or what they said; suffice it to say that assistant secretaries of three departments were among them. Only a handful of us got to speak, and appropriately so, as time was tight. (As we knew we would, the rest of us had to content ourselves with sitting there and looking very, very secular.)

Into that hour and half were compressed inevitable platitudes but also incisive discussion (on the part of our community’s representatives) on three issues: religion-based child abuse and neglect, discrimination against nonbelievers in the armed forces, and constitutional issues involving the faith-based initiatives. SCA legislative director Sasha Bartolf and executive director Sean Faircloth kept the pace and the quality satisfyingly high.

And I don’t think I’m breaking the rules to say that the administration officials present appeared to listen intently and responded meaningfully to our concerns.

Was it all lip service? I honestly don’t know; future events will tell us whether our discussions will lead to any noticeable change. But the specific results of this briefing are less important than the simple fact that it occurred.

For the first time in the history of the United States, representatives of the nonbelieving community were invited to take part in national policy dialogue at the White House level. We have taken our seat at the table alongside every other properly recognized interest group. On one view, it’s easy to carp that this was far too late in coming; by one common measure there are nearly fifty million American men, women, and children who live without religious belief—more people than belong to any single American religious denomination except Roman Catholicism. By any common-sense standard we should have enjoyed this recognition decades ago.

Of course common sense has little influence on the long-standing American aversion to nonbelief. The usual suspects on the right were outraged. Some right-wing bloggers suggested that we’d sat down with Obama himself (sadly not)—not for a briefing but rather to plot together the final ejection of Christianity from the public square. Fat chance! Fox News bloviator Sean Hannity didn’t go quite that far, but he did treat his viewers to the dumbfounding claim that in meeting with nonbelievers, the Obama administration had done something for us that had never been offered to religious groups! (The White House spurns religious groups and leaders, right. And who was that with the Dalai Lama the other week—one of Obama’s body doubles?)

Never mind, for now, that our community’s recognition was overdue. Now is when that overdue recognition occurred. Now is when the first U.S. president to acknowledge our community in an inaugural address occupies the White House. And from this moment forward, our movement will be on the inside, not the outside looking in. One thing we absolutely know after this briefing: it will not be the only one. Secular humanists and all their allies will be full participants in policy dialogues from now on.

In three words, this is huge.

I’m proud that the Council for Secular Humanism could be a part of it. I’m gratified that nonbelieving Americans have taken their seats at the table. And I didn’t even have to take my shoes off.

Tom Flynn is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of its magazine Free Inquiry

Chloride and Sodium: Two terribly dangerous substances that taste great together!

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