Some conservative commentators are accusing the Obama administration of inviting "hate groups" into the White House by holding a meeting with a coalition of secularist and atheist groups.
Officials from the Justice and Health and Human Services departments met Friday with representatives of the Secular Coalition for America, an umbrella group that includes American Atheists and the Council for Secular Humanism. The coalition called it "the first time in history a presidential administration has met for a policy briefing with the American nontheist community."
President Barack Obama was not scheduled to make an appearance at the meeting, nor were any policy changes to be announced, McClatchy news service reported.
But that didn't stop a number of religious conservative groups from attacking the meeting as a sign the president has an anti-religious agenda.
"It is one thing for Administration to meet with groups of varying viewpoints, but it is quite another for a senior official to sit down with activists representing some of the most hate-filled, anti-religious groups in the nation," said Council Nedd, chairman of the religious advocacy group In God We Trust.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said the meeting provided a "definitive answer" about the administration's stance towards religion.
"People of faith, especially Christians, have good reason to wonder exactly where their interests lie with the Obama administration," Donohue said in a statement. "Now we have the definitive answer. In an unprecedented move, leaders of a presidential administration are hosting some of the biggest anti-religious zealots in the nation."
But Dr. Ed Buckner, head of American Atheists, praised the Obama administration for including non-believers in the political dialogue, something he said was missing from previous administrations.
"Over 13 percent of the population is considered 'non-religious,' and this includes millions of atheists, freethinkers, humanists, rationalists, and other citizens," Buckner said. "We are committed to the separation of church and state and to equality for non-believers in the political arena. Religious speakers must not continue to be given special privileges."
According to ABC News, three issues were on the agenda at the meeting: The use of "faith healing" on children, which the coalition describes as a form of "child abuse"; the "pervasive" religious atmosphere in the US military; and faith-based initiatives.
"I have witnessed firsthand how [military] service members who are openly non-theist have been harassed by their commanders, leaders, and peers, and have been disrespected by their subordinates for failing to hold certain religious beliefs," said American Atheists vice president Kathleen Johnson.
Johnson called on the Obama administration to make non-theists "a protected class throughout the Armed Services on par with the protections afforded to women, minorities, and those belonging to minority faith groups."
Coalition representative Paul Fidalgo told McClatchy News Service that the coalition felt the meeting went "very, very well" and that members were "encouraged by the reception we got today." But he gave no further details, noting the coalition and the administration had agreed not to speak publicly about the specifics of the meeting.
In comments posted Friday, blogger "Kyle" at Right Wing Watch suggested that religious groups criticizing the Obama administration for welcoming "hate groups" are guilty of hypocrisy.
"President Bush would never have met with anyone who espoused 'hate-filled views' ... would he?" the blogger asked sarcastically, above a list of religious leaders, known for their anti-gay stances, who met with President George W. Bush in the White House during the former president's term.
For the period April 2001 through June 2006, Focus on the Family Founder and Chairman Emeritus James Dobson visited the White House 24 times; 10 of those visits were to President Bush.
Andrea Lafferty, Executive Director of the Traditional Values Coalition, made an astonishing 50 visits to the White House starting on February 1, 2001, and continuing through March 16, 2008. Six of those visits were to President Bush.
The late Jerry Falwell, of Jerry Falwell Ministries, made eight visits to the White House between May 2001 and September 2004. Three of those visits were to President Bush.