Atheist Presses Obama on Faith-Based Policies During Live Town Hall Meeting

CONTACT: Mike Meno, SCA communications manager: 202-299-1091, 443-927-6400 or

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a live-televised town hall meeting in College Park, Maryland, today, President Barack Obama gave the first question opportunity to Amanda Knief of the Secular Coalition for America, who asked the president why he has still not fulfilled the campaign promise he made three years ago to end the Bush-era policies that allow federally funded religious organizations to discriminate in hiring and employment on the basis of belief.

Knief, an atheist and the government relations manager for the Secular Coalition for America, pressed the president on a campaign promise he made in Zanesville, Ohio, on July 1, 2008, when he pledged to ensure that federal grant recipients cannot “proselytize to the people you help, and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of religion.”

“You have not rescinded the executive order that permits this type of discrimination,” Knief told the president. “In a time of economic hardship, when it is difficult for a person to get a job based on her skills, what would you say to a woman who was denied employment based on her religion, or lack of religious beliefs, by a taxpayer [funded] organization?”

In his response, Obama described the topic as “a very difficult issue” but didn’t address the central question of why taxpayers should continue funding religious discrimination.

“This is always a tricky part of the First Amendment,” Obama said. “On the one hand, the First Amendment ensures that there is freedom of religion, on the other hand, we want to make sure that religious bodies are abiding by general laws. […] And so then the question is, does a Jewish organization have to hire a non-Jewish person as part of that organization? Now, I think that the balance we tried to strike is to say that if you are offering, if you’ve set up a nonprofit that is disassociated from your core religious functions and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work, then you have to abide, generally, with the nondiscrimination hiring practices. If, on the other hand, it is closer to your core functions as a synagogue or a mosque or a church then there may be more leeway for you to hire somebody who is a believer of that particular religious faith.

“It doesn’t satisfy everybody,” the president continued. “I will tell you that a lot of faith-based organizations think we are too restrictive in how we define those issues. There are others, like you obviously, that think we are not restrictive enough. I think we’ve struck the right balance so far, but this is something we continue to be in dialogue with faith based organizations about to try to make sure that their hiring practices are as open and as inclusive as possible.”

Knief later said she was not satisfied with the president’s answer.

“Unfortunately, the president didn’t address the most egregious aspect of this policy – that religious discrimination is occurring on the taxpayer’s dime,” Knief said. “Discrimination is wrong in all forms, especially when it is being funded by taxpayers. I would urge the president to reconsider the statements he made today, and stick to his campaign promise of 2008 by signing an executive order barring any taxpayer funding of religious organizations that discriminate on the basis of belief.”

Video of the exchange is available here:

Last month, the Secular Coalition was one of dozens of secular and religious organizations affiliated with the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) that joined U.S. Rep Robert “Bobby” Scott and other House members at a press conference on Capitol Hill to urge Obama to end religious discrimination in hiring and employment.

The Justice Department has said it is reviewing the current policy on a “case by case” basis, but Obama has not spoken publicly about the issue since he’s been in office.

The Secular Coalition for America is a 501(c)4 organization that serves as the national lobby for secular Americans, including atheists, agnostics, and humanists, in our nation’s capital. Composed of 10 diverse member organizations, SCA works to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all. For more information, please visit

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