White House officials will this morning meet with leaders of the atheist community, who will discuss their concerns about the "privileging of religion" by the government "that harms real people," in the words of Sean Faircloth, executive director of the Secular Coalition of America.
The group calls this meeting "the first time in history a presidential administration has met for a policy briefing with the American nontheist community."
Faircloth told ABC News that the group will brief Tina Tchen and Paul Monteiro, the director and associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs; Bryan H. Samuels, Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at Health and Human Services; and Mazen Basrawi, Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice.
He said they would address three items: "religiously based child abuse issues, so-called faith-healing" and religious child care being exempt from some health and safety laws; the "pervasive" religious atmosphere in the military and ways in which troops "with nontheistic views are made to feel unwelcome"; and faith-based initiatives.
The White House sought to downplay the meeting, with spokesman Shin Inouye saying, "the White House office of Public Engagement regularly meets with a wide-range of organizations and individuals on a diverse set of issues."
But the atheist group is quite excited about the meeting. While the president often proclaims his belief in God, and talks occasionally about his Christian faith, he said in his inaugural address that "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers."
"We appreciated the acknowledgement," Faircloth said.
The Coalition is an umbrella group for American Atheists, the American Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance International, Camp Quest, The Council for Secular Humanism, the Institute for Humanist Studies, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, the Secular Student Alliance and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The meeting was first reported by Margaret Talev of McClatchy Newspapers .
Polls indicate many different numbers for the percentage of Americans who do not believe in God, but Faircloth said he believes it to be 13% -- "which is comparable to the percentage of African-Americans," he said. "Certainly the African-American community has shown a group of that size can have influence; we would like to have influence on same scale."
During the Bush administration, the Coalition was primarily focused on lobbying Congress, but has been more aggressive about approaching the executive branch since President Obama's election, Faircloth said. Faircloth said the Coalition has approached the Education Department to ensure that "non-theistic" children are included in the Safe Schools Act, which works to make sure children in American public schools don’t feel threatened by their environment, and to express concern about organizations "like the Good News Club," which allows adults to proselytize to public school students on school grounds.