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Nontheists struggle to stay involved in international religious freedom efforts
Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious want a more open dialogue with the Trump administration. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
As the Trump administration focuses on boosting religious freedom across the globe, government officials may be overlooking a potential ally here at home: nonbelievers.

Compared to their experiences with past administrations, leaders of key nontheist groups say they feel frozen out of the president's religion-related efforts, in spite of the fact that atheists are often the victims of faith-based violence.

"We will stand with coalitions and groups defending Christians around the world, and it's also important that the U.S. opposes atheists being threatened," said Nicholas Little, legal director for the Center for Inquiry, an organization that advocates for a secular society. A former Center for Inquiry leader served as chairman of the United Nations NGO Committee on the Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The State Department's latest report on international religious freedom, released last week, included several examples of people being targeted for their lack of belief. For example, a man in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes in 2016 for spreading atheism and threatening the moral fabric of the country.

"True religious freedom includes the freedom to not be religious," Little said.

In the past, nontheist groups worked with the State Department to respond to attacks on atheists, but this partnership has been threatened by the growing tension surrounding religious freedom in the U.S., said Nick Fish, national program director for American Atheists.

"Too often, this issue is framed as atheists trying to take away something from Christians. We have to push back on that because we value the First Amendment," he said.

To be sure, nontheists and religious freedom advocates are often in legal conflict in cases of religious expression on public property or allowing faith-based groups tax breaks and access to public funding. For example, the Center for Inquiry spoke out against the Supreme Court's June ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church. The high court decided that religious institutions should be allowed to participate in state funding programs related to school playground safety.

However, Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that religious freedom activists must make room for nonbelievers, since robust conscience rights include the ability to say no to God. The committee has partnered with nontheist groups many times before, she said, and in the Trinity case it also opposed the church's arguments.

"Though the starting point for theists and nontheists might be different, we come to the same conclusion: that we only have religious freedom when all people do," Tyler noted.

American Atheists and the Center for Inquiry recently joined with two other nontheist groups to call for increased dialogue with President Donald Trump and other government officials. They want to be seen as supporters of religious freedom, rather than a threat to religious expression in the U.S.

"We think it's of critical importance for any administration to listen to a broad range of voices. The lines of communication need to be open," Little said.

During the Obama administration, nontheists' efforts to be involved in policy discussions were rewarded in large and small ways. Obama increased his references to the religiously unaffiliated over his two terms, helping members of this community feel recognized.

"For Obama himself, it was more or less lip service, but that was still a big step. It set the stage for what his administration would do," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. Humanists define themselves by their commitment to ethical living, rather than their lack of religious belief.

He and others acknowledged the work of the former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, noting that he was careful to consult with nonbelievers as he sought to protect people around the world.

"It was great to know that we could pick up the phone and officials at the State Department would actually listen to us," Little said.

During the Obama administration, atheists, humanists and other religious nones were also invited to join discussions on religious diversity and community relations, he added.

"It was great to be able to sit at those meetings and participate with these groups of different backgrounds," Little said. "The dialogue was just as important as the results."

Leaders of nontheist groups knew that a new administration would affect their access. After all, each president has his or her own priorities, and it's not uncommon for old coalitions to be disbanded.

However, since Trump took office in January, nontheists have been disappointed by Trump's failure to mention their community in his public addresses.

The president "has repeatedly spoken in ways that seem to indicate that the U.S. is entirely Christian," Fish said.

While nontheists may never agree with Trump's prayer circles in the Oval Office or efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a tax provision that prevents churches from donating to political campaigns and faith leaders from endorsing candidates, they can help with plans to protect believers and nonbelievers around the world, Speckhardt said.

"There are a lot of international religious freedom issues that conservatives and liberals tend to agree on. That's where we can make progress," he said.

Leaders of nontheist groups said the Trump administration's lack of engagement with their community has pushed them to deepen their ties to other organizations, such as the Baptist Joint Committee, as they work to amplify their impact on politics.

"We're going to keep on calling. Maybe one day they will pick up the phone," Little said.
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