- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2017

America’s atheists are losing faith — in President Trump.

For months, secular organizations say they have unsuccessfully lobbied the president to make an effort to reach out to America’s nonreligious community. Now, revelations of a weekly Bible study group in the Trump White House, regularly attended by high-ranking Cabinet members, has free thinkers up in arms.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling the Bible study group disturbing, scary and maybe even an illegal use of taxpayer funds.

“If those officials want privacy, the solution is pretty damn simple: Study the Bible in your private capacity, not in your official capacity and at your government desk,” the secular group said in a statement Thursday. “Do it on your time, not the taxpayers’. In short, get off your knees and get to work.”

The Bible study group was started by Ralph Drollinger, founder of Capitol Ministries, which aims to spread the Gospel at the seats of power. Mr. Drollinger has established similar programs in the House and Senate, and 40 state capitals and 24 foreign countries.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and CIA Director Mike Pompeo are reportedly among the regulars at the White House group.

President Trump has not attended but is invited to every week, and Vice President Mike Pence plans to stop by as his schedule permits.

Mr. Drollinger told CBN News, which first reported the White House study group, that he can see the fruits of his labor in the administration’s behavior.

He said Mr. Sessions will “go out the same day I teach him something, and I’ll see him do it on camera, and I just think, ‘Wow, these guys are faithful, available and teachable, and they’re at Bible study every week they’re in town.’”

News of the Bible study comes after a coalition of atheist organizations petitioned the president to reach out to nonbelieving Americans.

In March, the four largest atheist advocacy groups in the country — the American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry and the Secular Coalition — sent a joint letter to Mr. Trump imploring him to work with the nonreligious community to “ensure religious freedom and inclusion for all Americans throughout your tenure as president of the United States.”

The White House has yet to respond to the letter.

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said the president has an “obligation to represent all Americans.”

“Despite divisive campaign rhetoric, many humanists were willing to give President Trump a chance to establish an inclusive administration,” Mr. Speckhardt said in a July 28 statement, “but his refusal to meet with the nontheistic community and his administration’s open hostility to the separation of religion and government is profoundly disturbing.”

Rising voting bloc

A Pew Research “Religious Landscape Survey” found that atheists and agnostics represent about 7 percent of the U.S. population, while another 15 percent of Americans say they are unaffiliated with any organized religion. Religiously unaffiliated voters sided with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton 68 percent to 26 percent in the November general election.

President Obama regularly reached out to the nonreligious community, including in his inaugural address. His administration’s narrow interpretation of the First Amendment — which led to clashes such as the effort to require an order of Catholic nuns to pay for their employees’ birth control — irked evangelicals.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the Bible study group shows that the White House is “under new management.”

“After eight years of the most hostile attacks on faith in America, the simple fact that the administration is encouraging its people to live out their beliefs is a powerful example of the change taking root,” Mr. Perkins said in a statement. “And if anyone needs spiritual encouragement, it’s the men and women in the most influential seats in Washington.”

But the Freedom From Religious Foundation contends that members of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet already have enough trouble keeping their “religion separate from their public office.”

“Each week, these pious politicians spend their time — your time, dear taxpayer — perusing a book that condones child sacrifice, slavery, misogyny and the subjugation of women, genocide and eternal torture for those who believe differently,” the secular group said. “If ever there were a book that government officials ought not to follow, it’s the Bible.”

The foundation also took issue with Mr. Drollinger’s participation, pointing to comments he has made in the past about women and homosexuality.

“That Drollinger has unfettered access to the highest levels of our government is scary and raises serious state-church concerns,” the group said. “For instance, all these messages have a direct impact on public policy, including on LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, the social safety net, the right to choose, environmental issues and global climate change.

“This access and ability to affect policy might run afoul of lobbying regulations, something FFRF attorneys are investigating.”

Religious practice in the White House is not unprecedented.

The George W. Bush administration held weekly Bible study gatherings, and Presidents Carter and Nixon set aside time for prayer and devotion, Mr. Perkins said.

Church services were regularly held in the House of Representatives and executive buildings at the time of the nation’s founding.

Mr. Perkins said, “Government shouldn’t fear faith, but welcome it.”

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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