American Atheist Home

"DEFENDING THE WALL" Press Conference
January 19, 2020
National Press Club, Washington D.C.

AMERICAN ATHEISTS held a historic media conference at the National Press Club. President Ellen Johnson outlined the issues behind the “Defending the Wall” protests at this past summer’s political conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles and now, the inauguration of George W. Bush. Ms. Johnson noted that the year 2000 election campaign was a shameless rhetorical battle where candidates from both major parties unabashedly used religious faith as a credential for public office.

Speaking at the NPC, Ms. Johnson added that the nomination of John Ashcroft as the next Attorney General is a bad omen for the future of state-church separation under the Bush administration. She also warned that proposals to expand “Charitable Choice” and faith-based partnerships would levy an unconstitutional and unfair “Religion Tax” on all of the American people -- not just millions of Atheists, freethinkers and others who profess no religious beliefs.

Tomorrow, American Atheists joins the VoterMarch demonstration in a peaceful protest and march from DuPont Circle to the White House ellipse. Look for a full report, and photos of the Saturday protest, coming soon on this web site!

Ellen Johnson (President), Tim Mitchell, John Obst (Maryland State Director), David Silverman (Youth and Family Director)

Statement by American Atheists President Ellen Johnson

Good morning, and I’d like to thank everyone for coming.

My name is Ellen Johnson and I am the President of American Atheists. Our organization was founded by Madalyn O’Hair who was a plaintiff in the historic 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case MURRAY v. CURLETT, which helped to end mandatory, prayer and Bible verse recitation in our nation’s public schools. Today, our organization addresses issues of Atheist civil rights and First Amendment public policy.

I’d like to take just a few minutes to tell you why we are participating along with so many other cause organizations in this week’s inaugural protests.

We have noticed with growing alarm the policies being articulated by the two major political parties and their candidates in the 1999-2000 election campaigns. Both Democrats and Republicans were going out of their way to employ religious rhetoric and belief as a credential for public office. Both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush constantly spoke of their religious faith, and both candidates pledged that if elected, they would aggressively pursue efforts to give organized religion a greater voice in the public square and in the affairs of government. I want to point out that we weren’t the only one’s noticing this; this isn’t something that only Atheists were aware of, or uncomfortable with. More than a few political pundits wondered “What Would Jesus Do?” - to borrow a phrase from pop-culture Christianity - if he suddenly returned to earth to discover that he had been unwittingly enlisted in the service of partisan politics. Political discourse assumed a divisive religious character - one need only look at the controversy surrounding the appearance of president-elect Bush at Bob Jones University, or the comedic proceedings simply to name a congressional chaplain.

Worse yet, both candidates proposed legislation which threatens to effectively demolish the “wall of separation” between church and state in America. Let me say, up front, that this a non-partisan protest. If this were Mr. Gore’s inauguration, we would still be here in Washington, D.C. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore supported the misnamed Religious Liberty Protection Act, which would have established a discriminatory “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test for government whenever it dealt with sectarian groups or practices. When concerns were raised about the “unintended consequences” such as the special rights entitlements of this legislation, a hurried and watered down version was passed and signed by President Clinton as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

To his credit, Vice President Gore did not support vouchers and other schemes to funnel public money to religious schools. George W. Bush did, and this is one reason why we are here in Washington. American Atheists takes the position that vouchers under any name - you can call them “opportunity scholarships,” or “tax credits” or anything else - amount to a public policy which directs taxpayer money into the coffers of religious schools, which are under no uncertain circumstances extensions of churches. Voucher experiments in Texas, Ohio and Wisconsin show that the major beneficiary is the Roman Catholic parochial school system. There are many groups and individuals who support vouchers for a variety of reasons, but the bottom line is this - the REAL purpose of voucher programs is to use public money to sustain and increase the role of religious indoctrination of our nation’s youth with no government standards relating to teaching credential, health and safety.

I want to make one thing clear. Despite their faults, the public schools of our nation have done a wonderful job. Unlike religious and private schools, the public schools cannot “pick and choose” who will walk through their doors to get an education. If you’re interested in educating ALL classes and colors of youngsters, quality public schools are the way to do it.

We also noticed that during the recent election campaign, both candidates embraced dangerous proposals to expand so-called “charitable choice” and so-called “faith-based partnerships,” which would further involve sectarian groups - funded by the American taxpayer - in the operation of social services. Our organization has always opposed any government aid to religious groups engaged in social services; we have repeatedly stated that the guidelines which stipulate that any public monies not be used for sectarian proselytizing and religious exercise cannot be rigorously enforced. One problem is that when you start trying to monitor how religious groups spend the public coin, they resist accountability and inevitably end up invoking a legal shield of freedom of religion to justify such resistance.

Mr. Gore paid lip service to the idea that these faith-based partnerships should not be used to promote religion. In practice, though, we continue to monitor cases of abuse where religious groups taking public money inevitably link that resource to their sectarian mission. The bulk of funding for the nation’s largest so-called “religious charities” already comes from government grants, and there is no supervision of this funding. The situation will only get worse as “faith-based partnerships” and other schemes expand. Mr. Gore was somewhat vague about his vision of religion-based social services, but Mr. Bush and his major policy advisors are not. They clearly want religious groups to be lining up at the public treasury, taking public money, and using it to administer social programs with a distinctly religious, and sectarian character in other words, to indoctrinate and recruit under the guise of “humanitarianism”.

With government money should come government supervision, that would be only fair. We point out that this would add to the cost of these programs, and this added cost of oversight would undermine the very argument offered by churches that they would administer these programs more cost effectively than government.

One of the signs we have carried in our protests at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles reads: “THEIR RELIGION -- OUR MONEY - NO WAY!” This pretty much sums up our position on “charitable choice” and “faith-based partnerships.” These programs amount to a “Religion Tax” on the American people. They compel MILLIONS of Americans who are Atheists to open their purses and wallets to organizations that engage in blatant proselytizing, that attack and demean the nonreligious, and are exempt from civil rights legislation - all under the veneer of giving religious groups an opportunity to administer welfare programs.

Let me just segue a minute here and discuss these programs. Right now, American Atheists is conducting a study of “faith-based” social services and other programs being administered by religious groups using public money, or a combination of public and private grants. We hope to release our results in the next few months, but I can share with you some of our preliminary findings.

The first is that many of the claims being made about the efficacy of these programs are self-serving. Often there is little or no outside monitoring to confirm the success rates. One good example comes from Texas, where under Governor Bush religious ministries and faith-based programs have become the rage in the state’s prison system. We find that the claims of rehabilitation rates and other alleged successes for similar programs are made without the benefit of third-party confirmation. Also, general studies that claim high rates of success for faith-based programs are often based heavily on anecdotal evidence, and we find that those who make these claims simply end up citing each other as sources of confirmation, rather than good, raw data. The bottom line is we don’t know if these programs work, and there seems often to very little effort made to confirm the claims of high success rates. But success of these programs is not the issue: American Atheists still opposes these programs because they violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Another finding is that as government loosens the regulations for religious groups to receive public money for the administration of these programs, abuses seem to grow - and there is little or no third-party administrative oversight. It’s very clear to us that religious groups that want taxpayer money have every intention of using it to primarily facilitate their sectarian message. The first court test of this involves a case from George W. Bush’s state of Texas - which should give all Americans pause - which on the surface may appear very innocent and prosaic - it involves a job-training program administered by a coalition of neighborhood churches. Court documents already reveal that clients were pressured to change their views about religious faith, that the program included Bible study and other religious materials and taxpayer money was used! Clearly, this violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

We believe that these faith-based programs constitute what is, in effect, a “Religion Tax” on the American people. It violates the constitution, and it also violates one of the building blocks of the American Revolution, which was the disestablishment of religion. This process of disestablishment ended a policy where often an “official religion” was supported by the government -- it effectively compelled people to promote sectarianism. In our view, this disestablishment has been eroded over the years by laws and government programs which seek to funnel aid to religious schools, hospitals and other institutions, under the excuse that it supports a neutral or secular activity rather than the propagation of a particular faith. Whatever you think of that claim, though, it is clear to us that what Mr. Bush is hoping to achieve doesn’t even rest on such a disingenuous argument. This is clearly the public funding of religion. It compels ALL Americans, including Atheists, to support whatever religious group steps up to the public trough. It compels all Americans to support a religion they would not do so individually nor voluntarily. It compels Americans to support a religion that would be clearly at odds with their own religious convictions. It would compel Atheists to support those organizations that condemn them. This clearly violates our intellectual freedoms.

It is interesting to note that one of Mr. Bush’s closest policy advisors, Marvin Olasky who is the pied piper of faith-based partnership programs, has even suggested, “maybe disestablishment wasn’t such a good idea...” He has spoken in favor of multiple establishments of religion, which means that any and all religious sects and faith-based comers will be free to seek our funding for their religious activities, as long as it is all done under the veneer of providing social services.

We are also alarmed over the fact that George W. Bush declared April 17, 2020 as “Jesus Day”, to honor that non-historical religious character. That declaration was clearly an unconstitutional endorsement and promotion of religion.

We are also in Washington to speak out against Bush-administration appointments and the policies they will inevitably reflect. This includes Sen. John Ashcroft as the nation’s next Attorney General. We noted that Mr. Ashcroft was the primary architect behind the so-called “charitable choice” provision of the 1996 welfare reform act, and it’s worth noting that “charitable choice” enjoys wide bi-partisan support. I know that many groups are justifiably concerned with Ashcroft’s nomination, and the effect he would have on issues like abortion rights, gay rights and civil liberties.

From our perspective, Ashcroft’s appointment is a signal that the full resources of the government will be used to defend any legal challenges against “religion friendly” legislation, whether it is a law trying to sneak prayer or Bible study back into the public schools; display of unconstitutional religious symbols on public property; or efforts to expand government aid to sectarian groups.

We publicly wonder if Mr. Ashcroft would choose his Christian flag over our American flag.

It took a battery of Supreme Court cases to stop, in theory anyway, the practice of compelling youngsters to engage in religious rituals in the taxpayer supported public schools. It still requires considerable legal efforts to challenge the display of religious symbols on public property. We look at disingenuous efforts to promote different forms of coercive religion -- sneaking creationism into the public schools, for instance, or promoting the illusion of so-called “student led” prayer or “moments of silence.” All of this was, and is, bad enough. But now, this is going far beyond just demanding that Atheists in America stand silently by while prayer or other religious activity takes place in our public institutions. Now, they want us to pay for their religion.

We feel that the civil liberties achieved by and since the MURRAY v. CURLETT case and other court decisions is in jeopardy with a President George W. Bush. We look with serious concern at the possibility that his appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and the rest of the Federal Judiciary will reflect, at best, a weak, if not totally skewered, interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

I want to say something about the Establishment Clause and this recent election campaign. It seemed that nowhere on the political landscape was there a candidate - especially one running for the nation’s highest elected position, that of President of the United States - who unambiguously and unequivocally said, “Yes, I proudly and firmly support the separation of church and state.” The First Amendment was really the orphan child - make that the rhetorical punching bag - of this election. Both freedom of expression and state-church separation were under constant attack. We had the spectacle of the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman behaving like some wrathful and intolerant Old Testament prophet, excoriating Americans for their choices - or the fact that they even had a choice - in the entertainment marketplace, constantly distorting the alleged role of faith in the history of the American experience. There were days when Al Gore and Lieberman spent more time in churches, mosques and temples than in the secular public square. Bush and Cheney were no different. All of these candidates, and many others, felt it necessary to explain their policies by saying, “I’m in favor of the First Amendment, BUT...”

“I support the separation of church and state, BUT...”

Not one elected official of national stature had the integrity, the vision, or the courage to state to the American people, “I support the separation of church and state, I support the freedoms of the First Amendment, and that’s that!”

Finally, let me tell you something about Atheists. Surveys have shown that somewhere around 10% of the American people describe themselves as Atheists, or freethinkers, or people who have no use in their lives for religious creeds and organized sectarian movements. That’s approximately 27 million people, if the census isn’t glutted with chad. We are part of a much larger number of Americans branded with the religiously pejorative label, “unchurched.”

I realize that not everyone agrees with all of our message; but there are concerns here that affect many, if not all Americans. Other groups that focus on other issues - rights for women, gay rights, good public schools, you name it - have reason to be concerned about George Bush, and the groups and individuals who backed him. We consider many of Bush’s appointments and promises to reflect the well-known fact that he now must pay back the IOUs from religious right extremists like Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Jerry Falwell for their support in the recent election. We are concerned when his closest advisors suggest that the “disestablishment of religion may not have been such a good idea...”

For once, American Atheists would like to see a President who swears his or her oath of Office with their right hand on a copy of the U.S. Constitution. We would also like to see other public office holders as well - from federal judges to our local elected official - swear their oaths upon this secular document, not a sectarian tract.

So, we are demonstrating in our nation’s capitol first and foremost as Americans. We are “American Atheists,” but like every other group - including religious people, gays, private business owners, organized labor, or anyone else - we are exercising our First Amendment rights to be heard.

We are aware of the fact that many people in America are part of organized religious sects. We simply want - no, make that DEMAND - the same right they enjoy - to quote Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition, “a seat at the table in the great conversation we call democracy.” We feel that the issues I’ve touched upon deserve to be discussed and considered. These are issues of great concern to us, and we intend to speak out about them whether it’s peacefully, in the streets tomorrow, or in front of congress, or in letters and other outreaches to our public officials.

Thank you very much.


Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.