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Statement by American Atheists
President Ellen Johnson

The National Press Club

Washington, DC Friday, February 23, 2020

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. Our organization addresses issues of Atheist civil rights and First Amendment public policy.

A little over a month ago, our organization was here in Washington, D.C. to join with other groups representing millions of concerned Americans, to protest the social agenda of the new Bush administration. We were particularly concerned with the nomination of John Ashcroft as the Attorney General, and Mr. Bush’s proposal to establish a special government entitlement program directed at religious groups to encourage them to begin providing faith-based social services. I am discouraged to say that both of these proposals are now matters of fact.

We are back in our nation’s capital to again raise our voices, and express opposition to President Bush’s establishment of a special White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, which he established by Executive Order on January 29, 2020. Another Executive Order commanded major government agencies, including the Departments of Housing and Health and Human Services, to establish special liaison offices which would work with religious -- I’m sorry, that’s “faith-based groups” -- in making sure that the full resources of the federal government were put at their disposal.

Leading up to the establishment of this special White House office, President Bush and his policy advisors have engaged in a campaign to obfuscate the real issues involved in this initiative. We note that “faith-based” has become a fashionable acronym for the term “religious.” Bush scrupulously avoided mentioning words like “church,” or “mosque” or “temple” in his Executive Order, but these terms were employed generously in statements made by the President later. The term “faith-based” appeared fifteen (15) times in the five brief sections of Bush’s Executive Order.

Let me provide you with some background about this issue.

One of the major accomplishments of the American Revolution was the process of disestablishing the official religious sects and churches of the original colonies. Often, one had to be a member of this church to live in a particular area, or enjoy other rights such as holding an office of public trust. Tax money and other entitlements, including land grants, were often used to secure the power and privilege of these organized religious sects.

The Founding Fathers were disenchanted by this colonial artifact, and they knew full well the danger of having an official state church, as many European nations did. In the wake of the Revolution, a move of disestablishment swept the new nation. It was energized not only by the Enlightenment philosophy of the era -- an emphasis on science, liberty and human rights -- which many of the founders embraced, but also by minority religious which desired to see a more pluralistic America. The Baptists, for instance, fought to dissuade state legislatures from recognizing the special status of the Anglican or Episcopal church. Virginia led the way, and in 1786, Jefferson’s ACT FOR ESTABLISHING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM was introduced.

It’s words speak to us today. It stated, in part:

“NO MAN shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions of belief; but that all men shall be press to profess ... their opinion in matters of religion.”

I would like to call your attention to the phrase that “no man” -- and I would say that today this would mean “no taxpayer” -- “shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever.”

What part of that don’t you understand, Mr. President?

Tomorrow, American Atheists will be in front of the White House beginning at 12 noon to protest and speak out against the creation of this new federal entitlement office, and all other efforts which seek to transfuse religious groups of any kind with public funds.

We will also be presenting the White House with a copy of an on-line petition which we have had on our web site for the past several days; it bears the names of over a thousand Atheists from across this nation who join with us in demanding the abolition of this federal office. It speaks out against what is clearly a “Religion Tax” on the American people, including the 10% of the American citizenry who define themselves as Atheists and just plain non-believers.

Let me address some of the more confusing statements that have been concerning the new Faith-based initiative.

First, this IS about religious faith, and promoting religious groups. President Bush has declared that his office will not promote a specific religion, but instead welcomes all religions

Frankly, it doesn’t matter to us that any and all religious groups are included in this program. It doesn’t matter if “no one religion” is promoted over others, although this is surely a constitutional danger. The fact that our tax money is being confiscated and then distributed to a slew of different religious groups does not, in our opinion, make it less unconstitutional. Jefferson spoke of no man being compelled to “frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.”

What part of the word “any” don’t you understand, Mr. Bush?

Another concern that has been raised involves the impact this and similar programs at the local and state level may have on organized religious groups. Some organizations -- many of them religious -- fear that with government funding may come government controls. We agree. Churches, mosques and temples should worry about this. But there have been controls for many years on how faith-based groups which accept public funding must behave -- and those controls have been rarely enforced, and today they are being weakened. They are token restraints at best. Organized religious groups are already receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to operate programs, but must ostensibly use this money only for the “secular component” of their outreaches. There is little active monitoring or oversight to see that they are obeying this requirement.

In 1996, the “charitable choice” provision of the welfare reform act blurred and weakened existing standards, since it allows faith-based groups to bid on government service contracts without supposedly compromising their “religious character.” Just what does that mean? Why was that stipulation put into the wording of the Act, if not to advance and help religious groups carry out the evangelization faith-based side of their mission?

Even if there were more controls and monitoring on the religious groups accepting government money, well, “no” still means “no.” It is our position that all government funding of religious groups, both direct and indirect, should be suspended. These groups benefit both directly and indirectly from such entitlement programs, and with this money comes the inevitable temptation to use it to support a religious outreach. We hear constantly of how religious groups receiving public funding simply ignore the rules; they integrate religious components and requirements into their programs; and they flaunt the rules until they are threatened with a loss of funding.

It is our position that Atheists should not have to fund any of these religion-based outreaches and programs.

Bush and other supporters of the new Faith-based initiatives speak of creating a “level playing field” between secular and religious providers. Religious organizations can only be compared to government and secular organizations when they both operate under the same rules. Religious groups are exempt from anti-discrimination laws, they may use a religious litmus test in hiring and other policies, something secular groups receiving government money cannot do. They are also exempt from any government regulations and they do not need to report back to us on how they spend our money.

Secular programs already exist to handle these outreaches. The criticism that government programs are bad because they are “impersonal and bureaucratic” is desperate and reaching.

The only thing that religious groups would do differently is administer religion, in various ways, along with services. Of course, gods will be given credit for the services, not the taxpayers who fund them.

I am pleased when religions employ “Atheism” to help America’s needy. Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, giving medical treatment to the sick and injured is the philosophy of Atheism. Praying, preaching, reading holy books, converting, engaging in religious rituals, or invoking the aid of the “spirit world”, does not solve those problems and does not deserve the aid of government. If Americans want theology they should go to their local houses of worship. And there is the crux of the matter. Because of “empty pew syndrome” and stagnation in the ranks of many denominations, the religious are taking their religious message to where the people actually are - at public expense.

Additionally, it must be added that at least the government won’t abandon the hungry over a difference of opinion on religion. Advocates of the faith-based partnerships claim that religious groups would administer services with “relentless and sacrificial love,” yet when our government asked the Memphis, Tennessee Union Mission, which accepted that “nasty old governments” surplus food, to stop compelling people to declare their belief in a god, before and after their meals the mission said no. They decided to let the poor people go hungry instead. That is, if they could not compel vulnerable people to declare their allegiance to the Christian god, they would then the people could starve.

Religions have always turned to government to promote their cause. Governor Bush’s proclamation of “Jesus Day” in Texas, or the posting of religious documents like the Ten Commandments, in public buildings are good examples. So are the demands that taxpayers support religious schools, which are simply extensions of churches.

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, around the time of our April, 2001 convention, but let me provide you with some of the 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 usual line we hear is I have seen these programs and I “believe” that they work. 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.

In the tripartite test to determine the constitutionality of establishment clause issues, the government “partnering” with religion clearly fails the prong that prohibits the “excessive entanglement” with religion.

* Another finding is that as government loosens the regulations for religious groups taking public money to administer 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 this money have every intention of using it to 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 -- it involves a job training program administered by a coalition of neighborhood churches. And 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. Clearly, this violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

* We are also somewhat surprised at how reticent many religious groups are about these programs. Some rightfully see that with government money could come government supervision. Frankly, from our point of view, that would be only fair. We point out that this would add to the cost of these programs, but this would undermine the very argument offered by churches that they would administer these programs more cost effectively than government. So, religious groups should take this as a warning -- if you continue to move in the direction of tying your religious message to the public treasury, one of the ways we will oppose these programs is to demand oversight and monitoring by the government. This is a potential policy minefield not only for the integrity of state-church separation, but for the independence of religious groups as well. Take our money, you’re going to pay the price!

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 religion. In our view, the disestablishment has been eroded over the years by laws and government programs which seek to funnel aid, especially to religious schools, hospitals and other institutions, under the excuse that it supports a neutral or secular activity rather than religion. 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 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 that “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.

Finally, I want to announce today that along with the study on faith-based funding which we will release shortly, American Atheists is also beginning a new “FAITH-BASED ACCOUNTABILITY AND MONITORING INITIATIVE.” We fear that taxpayer money will eventually be funneled to religious groups without any restrictions - well, serious ones anyway. Nor do we think that there will be any monitoring or government oversight. However, should there be any caveats to the religious not to evangelize American Atheists will be watching them. This project will involve two areas.

* The first will be to gather any and all public-record data and, if necessary, information using the Federal Freedom of Information Act, involving federal, state and local funding of religion-based outreaches. This new “White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives” is of considerable concern to us, but I also need to point out that in states such as New Jersey, even local communities have entered into so-called “faith-based” partnerships with churches, mosques, temples and other groups. The American taxpayer needs to know just how much money is involved here. We need to know what, if any, accountability and oversight exists for these groups. * The second will be to closely monitor groups which decide to accept government money for any violations we can find. Let me just give a warning to any church or other religious group that wants to take our money for their faith-based program. We intend to become your worst nightmare. We want to see as many rules as possible in place; we want to see plenty of paperwork, and monitoring, and accountability. In one story which appeared recently in USA TODAY, the head of a religion-based outreach program gushed that she was “pleasantly surprised” by how few rules and oversight regulations there were. She said that the checks just keep rolling in...

We intend to change that, one way or another.

We are having our State Directors, and members, and anyone else who wishes to help, maintain a close and detailed watch on these groups which take our money. The local minister or mullah or whoever is in charge should remember that the next person showing up to look into social services just may be a member of American Atheists. And when we find violations -- and we expect to find many -- we will do everything we can to shut down that program.

So, to all of those religious groups, this is your last chance. If you REALLY believe in helping the poor and providing legitimate, secular social services, well, you should pass the plate and send it to an agency which is already feeding and clothing and education and helping people. If you want to take our money to promote your religion, we intend to find out about it, and we intend to do something about it.

Let me just close with an observation.

For years, Atheists and this organizations have been pretty much on the sidelines of the American political discussion. That has been changing, slowly. We’ve fought the usual battles over issues like school prayer, or a minister leading an invocation at a city council meeting, or the posting of the Ten Commandments. We have tried to make these issues “visible” to the American people, and our fellow Atheists.

In my years with this organization, though, I have never seen the level of frustration, and anger, and desire to “do something” as I have over this proposal to use government money to fund faith-based programs. We’re a small organization. Just a few months ago, we had about 1300 members. We’re now over 2,000 and growing, and frankly we are swamped with requests for membership applications and information about this topic. I get dozens, sometimes hundreds of e-mails, faxes, phone calls and letters every week from angry Atheists. Maybe they think that a ten commandments monument at the local courthouse was a burning issue; but they are fighting mad about this.

President Bush has done more to energize American Atheists and Atheists in America than just about any other issue in recent history. I also here from people who aren’t Atheists, who are angry too. And we welcome them to the ranks. I’m finding that on this issue, a lot of Americans agree with OUR position.

We are aware that many people in America are religious -- but millions are not, about 27 million, in fact. We’re here in Washington today, and we’ll be in front of the White House tomorrow, to demand a simple right. It’s the same right that former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed wanted for millions of evangelical believers. He called it, “a seat at the table in the great conversation we call democracy.”

This issue of public funding of religious groups is one that needs to be discussed, urgently. And I point out that it is an issue that affects more than just religious groups; it impacts every American taxpayer, including millions of us who have no religion. It’s not just the religious groups that should be heard. We should be heard as well. And I point out, so should the words of Thomas Jefferson, that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever...”

Thank you.

-- ELLEN JOHNSON, President, American Atheists


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