Secular Coalition for America's Prepared Remarks to White House Officials

Presented to the Obama Administration

February 26, 2010

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Surviving the Faith-based Medical Neglect of My Childhood: An Ex-Christian Scientist’s Story

By Liz Heywood (Presented by SCA Legislative Director Sasha Bartolf)

The last day of my childhood was Saturday, November 22, 1975. I was thirteen years old.

I galloped my horse through the woods, then I rode my bike to a friend’s house and we ran together all afternoon. I’d had no injury, but that night my left knee swelled like a melon; by bedtime I could barely walk. In a matter of weeks, so much pus was draining from my knee and running down my leg that my parents put a cookie sheet underneath to catch it. Within a month I was bedridden*and stayed that way for almost a year. Another six months in a wheelchair left me a teenager with a fused, hideously deformed leg and emotionally crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yet I never saw a doctor. I never received any medical treatment. I was a third-generation Christian Scientist living in Lexington, Massachusetts, within twenty miles of the Mother Church in Boston. My parents treated the sudden infection in my knee the same way they treated every illness: by having a Christian Science practitioner pray.  Christian Scientists believe that mortal life is unreal: they believe that understanding the spiritual universe created by God results in physical healing. All injuries and illnesses are treated this way*from paper cuts to cancer.

The year before, in 1974, a loophole in child abuse laws was initiated by the Nixon Administration that allowed parents to choose so-called religious treatment for their children even if it meant denying them urgently needed medical care. Federal law still contains a loophole that permits states to ignore the kind of torture I experienced, and 39 states have elected to have such loopholes.

Years later, my bone disease was identified as osteomyelitis, a strep infection that can settle in a joint. While serious complications can develop, immediate treatment with antibiotics often results in a good outcome. But my family saw my swollen, stiff knee as a mortal illusion to be corrected through prayer. About five weeks from the onset, my leg began to drain an alarming amount of pus. My mother called a Christian Science practical nurse to help care for me*a nurse trained by the church in strictly non-medical methods, forbidden to diagnose disease or dispense medicine.

And I believed only prayer could help me: I never expected or even wanted medical treatment. I was bedridden for ten months in 1976. I lost weight. I couldn’t bear to have my mother hug me*the slightest motion was agony. I sensed I might die. Some nights, I was afraid I wouldn’t die. I was fourteen years old.

My school, friends and neighbors were aware I was seriously ill and being treated with prayer. At times I screamed in pain, but none of the neighbors investigated. Only the mother of my best friend was concerned enough to call a lawyer but was told it was unlikely that I could legally be hospitalized. As a last-ditch effort, my friend’s mother sent an ambulance to our house, but my mother sent it away. She told me afterward the driver thought someone was having a baby.

This faith-based medical neglect hid me in plain sight behind the respectability of Christian Science, under the radar of politically correct religious tolerance. Even when they feared for my life, my parents seemed incapable of choosing medical help. By Christian Science policy, a practitioner must refuse to pray for clients who receive medical care, and my parents were terrified that hospitalizing me would lead to my death. Though I had a phone by my bed on those nights I cried, it never occurred to me to call anyone except the practitioner.

I outlasted the disease. My leg was scarred to the bone and my knee fused at an angle of about eighty degrees. But my school never asked for details when I finally lurched back to class on crutches after eighteen months, wrestling with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, claustrophobia, and panic attacks. Eventually I dropped out of high school.

Orthopedic specialists were unable to replace my fused knee. By the time I reached my forties, my foot and ankle had deteriorated until I could barely walk. Three years ago today, February 26, 2007, I had an elective above-knee amputation.

I remember clearly the agony and anguish I felt as a child. I remember that no adult stepped forward to end it. The law authorized my parents’ decision to leave me untreated, and the sanction of the law discouraged others from doing what is right. But refusing to act on the pain a child feels is criminal.

It is my sincere hope that my story will inspire the Obama Administration to realize that federal regulations must be amended. I hope you will encourage Congress to amend the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, (CAPTA) so that states protect all abused and neglected children equally instead of excluding religious-based medical neglect from their definition of child abuse. There is no right under the constitution to religiously based child abuse.

My case is not unique: children today are in danger. Despite the abuse inflicted upon these children, most states have exemptions from child abuse laws that permit children to be endangered as I was. The need to protect innocent children who are being hurt by these laws is urgent and immediate. When states aren’t unequivocally required to document or classify cases of religion-based neglect--and remove children from homes where this kind of abuse occurs--the consequences are completely unethical and morally unacceptable.

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Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers briefing to White House Officials

Presented by Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers

The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) is here today to request Executive mandated chain teaching sessions supporting nontheists in the military. A new MAAF study of Defense Manpower Data Agency religious preferences shows that Nontheists and other “Nones” represent nearly one-quarter of the military, or over 500,000 service members. Even self-identified Atheists outnumber Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews. Despite our significant numbers within the military, MAAF members continue to see a religious climate, created by commanders and chaplains, that shows little support and sometimes outright exclusion of nontheists.

As nontheists in the military seek morale and welfare support as well as a supportive community, they come to MAAF rather than to their unit chaplains. They come to MAAF with stories about discriminatory statements and exclusively religious or Christian focus within their units. MAAF operates a Chaplain Outreach program that has received few inquiries from chaplains over a period of years. Of those who have responded, we have had chaplains confide anonymously to us that they are afraid to be openly supportive of nontheists for fear of retribution from their commanders and/or Chaplains Corps leadership.

MAAF envisions a military where chaplains are focused on complex and challenging secular duties more than ministry to their own faith group. Joint Publication 1-05 on Religious Affairs lays out a complex array of religious affairs responsibilities a chaplain must attend to, including advisement of the command and support of service members. DoD Directive 1350-2 governs Equal Opportunity and defines religion as, “a personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs, and practices that are held with the strength of traditional religious views, characterized by ardor and faith, and generally evidenced through specific religious observances.” While this is entirely compatible with nontheistic ideologies, it is often misinterpreted and explicit action is necessary to ensure no loophole for discrimination exists.

MAAF envisions a military that recognizes that nontheistic ideologies deserve and need the same protection and support as more traditional religions are already provided. MAAF has invited chaplains to publicly commit to the following Minimum Statement of Support:

"Nontheistic service members, including atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and those holding other nontheistic designations, serve honorably within our nation's military. I pledge to support nontheistic service members as strongly as I support theistic service members. I further pledge not to use my position to influence individuals or the chain of command to adopt the principles or practices of my own personal religion. I concur that these statements are minimum standards of conduct to which all service members, especially chaplains and commanders, should adhere."

To ensure that all service members, especially commanders and chaplains, understand that nontheistic philosophies deserve the same respect as other traditional religious beliefs, chain-teaching sessions down to the Battalion, Group, or Navy Unit level should be given by chaplains with the explicit support of the unit commander to ensure that there is a consistent message from the chain of  command that nontheistic service members are part of the unit and welcome. These teaching sessions will highlight possible areas of conflict and stereotypes that need to be rejected to foster unit cohesion.

Your briefing packet includes information supporting the data we’ve provided, stories from members providing perspective on our issues, and sample instructional programs for the chain teaching sessions that we request. MAAF and other nontheists in our military community would appreciate any feedback you can give us on the chaplain outreach program and briefing plans.

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Kathleen Johnson briefing to White House Officials on Nontheists in the Military

Kathleen Johnson is Vice President and Military Director of American Atheists

As a First Sergeant in the Army, I have witnessed firsthand how service members who are openly non-theist have been harassed by their commanders, leaders, and peers, and have been disrespected by their subordinates simply for failing to hold certain religious beliefs. Further, some of these service members have received threats to their life and welfare of such intensity that they have been forced to redeploy from the combat zones for their own safety.  These service members are identified when they try to opt out of pre-mission unit prayers, when they raise objections to being forced to eat, work, and sleep in overtly religious environments, or when they try to organize meetings for like-minded individuals.  These service members have few effective methods to address their issues internally, and a powerful tool, the Equal Opportunity system, is often closed to them because current regulations do not identify non-theism as a protected class, and each branch of the Armed Forces is free to interpret that lack to mean that non-theists do not merit protection from discrimination.

Now, as a civilian employee at Fort Hood, TX I am part of a large military population that is dealing with the aftermath of a tragic incident that occurred in part because no action was taken to intercept a dangerously self-radicalized religionist.  Our current command climate, while intended to promote inclusiveness, protects
religious expression to a point that leaders are afraid to take appropriate actions when the circumstances require.

Both the Bush Administration and your Administration have demonstrated a lack of commitment to ensure the non-theist military community is fully accepted and integrated into the military community and is protected from discrimination.  For example, the current Secretary of the Army, Secretary John McHugh, was appointed to his
position by President Obama despite how in 2005, in the wake of the exposure of egregious constitutional violations at the U.S. Air Force Academy, McHugh voted against an amendment to a bill that would have
required the Secretary of Defense to report to Congress on progress made in addressing the proselytizing of cadets.  Further, the Department of Defense has a record of promoting officers to very senior positions despite clear evidence they are prone to using their positions to promote their religious beliefs.  For example, the DOD
Inspector General found seven senior officers guilty of misconduct for illegally promoting Christianity at the Pentagon during the Christian Embassy video scandal in 2007.  Two of the officers cited in the incident, Brigadier General Vince Brooks and Brigadier General Robert Caslen, were given senior commands and General Caslen was recently selected for promotion.  The former Secretary of the Army, Preston M. Geren, who was implicated in the scandal, was appointed as Secretary of the Army before the investigation was even completed.

I  wish to make it clear that the Secular Coalition for America is in no way stating that a religious person should be disqualified from senior positions for practicing their faith.  We are, however, stating that such persons must be thoroughly vetted to ensure they will protect the religious liberty of all under their command, including
extending that protection to the one quarter of the military population who identify themselves as non-theist.

Requested Actions:

1.  The Department of Defense standardizes the Equal Opportunity regulations throughout the Armed Services in a way that clearly defines non-theism as a protected class.  This policy adjustment would simply ensure that non-theists are afforded the same protection from discrimination as other minorities.

2.  The Administration demonstrates its commitment to improving the climate for non-theists by ensuring nominees to key senior leadership positions answer hard questions intended to indentify if they hold views detrimental to non-theists and if so, that such views be considered a disqualification from office.

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Secular Coalition for America briefing to White House Officials on Faith-Based Initiatives

Presented by Sean Faircloth, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America

A group called Teen Challenge receives our tax money under faith based initiatives.  They use government funds while discriminating against non-Christians, and have referred to Jewish converts to Christianity under their proselytizing as completed Jews, implying others Jews are incomplete.

The Indiana Family Institute used its taxpayer-funded grant to hire a fundraiser and upgrade its website, which advocated amending Indiana’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage.

Instances such as these raise serious constitutional questions. A well-known Constitutional Law professor from the University of Chicago said in Zanesville, Ohio, and I quote: 

“First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize … and you can’t discriminate…on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

Despite these words, President Obama’s own admirable words, his administration still lets fester a Bush-era violation of the separation of church and state regarding discrimination and proselytizing.

This administration has said discrimination in so-called “faith-based” initiatives would be decided case by case.  Dr. King believed that justice, that civil rights, is decided by uniform law that applies to ALL Americans equally, not case by case.

We oppose any funding for religious organizations, a position espoused by the Father of the Constitution, James Madison. And we call on the administration to take heed of what was done in every administration until recent years and refrain from this unconstitutional practice altogether.  If the administration chooses the path of James Madison, then we have no further questions.

Failing that, with the stroke of a pen, President Obama can make his own noble words regarding discrimination and proselytizing a reality.  We have faith that President Obama will keep his word.  But the current lack of follow-through to date leads to five questions on five topics:

First: since no congressional vote is required to implement the President’s own pledge, why has the president not fulfilled his very commendable promise to prohibit proselytizing and discrimination?

Second: the faith advisory council recently called for a requirement that faith-based organizations form separate 501c3s.  We applaud that recommendation.  What would stop the Administration from adopting this requirement immediately?

Third: The council also recommended sunshine laws, so there is full transparency as to which faith organizations get our tax money and how much.  We know top notch secular groups like Carefirst had their funding decreased under faith-based initiatives.  It is unconscionable that citizens do not have easy access to exact faith-based funding numbers.  Why would the administration allow this information to be withheld from the public any longer?

Fourth: Every day federal funds are distributed to faith-based social service providers who are NOT required to give notice to consumers of secular alternatives. Why aren't consumers guaranteed notice of and access to alternative secular providers?

Fifth: Georgetown Professor Jacques Berlinerblau has stated there is “some duplicity in the way the administration describes some members of the 25 person advisory board” -- because the administration has referred to alleged secular members of the commission.  We will not use the term duplicity, but the complete lack of secular Americans on the board is a serious and glaring lack of diversity.  Will the administration name an avowed secular American to serve on the council? 

We greatly appreciate this forum, and respectfully request an answer to each of these five questions.

Justice requires that we, who represent millions of secular Americans, be included – directly included -- in ongoing policy debates throughout the course of this administration.

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Closing Statement by Sean Faircloth

We are thankful to the administration for this opportunity.

The issues we raised here today demonstrate something very important.  Secular Americans believe in justice and compassion for all.

Most of the children who die, or are injured, by so-called faith-healing would self-identify as strongly religious.  Liz Heywood was very religious at the time she was abused.  For her, it was a lost leg, for others it is a lost life.

And regardless of the creed of the parent, Secular Americans believe there is no ancient document, no hallowed scripture, no dry parchment that justifies harming a child.  Our world view does not discriminate when it comes to compassion.

When we oppose discrimination in tax-payer funded faith based initiatives, yes, we oppose discrimination against nontheists, but our sense of justice calls on us to oppose discrimination against Muslims, Christians, or ANY other peaceful human being.

When our men and women in uniform speak out for justice and inclusion in our armed services, their bravery, by their own intention, benefits every American regardless of creed.

As we have demonstrated with facts, placing one class of citizens over another class of citizens on the basis of religion is simply unjust -- and harms real people.

We ask that this administration take action to address these injustices now, not merely because it benefits our constituency, but because the ideas and ideals of our movement benefit all Americans -- and all the world.

It is not our disbelief that brings us before you today. Rather it is our deep belief in the light of reason -- and our confidence that the light of reason and justice will lead us all to a better and more compassionate world.

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