It had all the makings of a Christmas party: sparkling cider, cheese, chocolate-covered strawberries, even fashion models wearing sparkling gowns. But instead of celebrating the upcoming Christian holiday, on Monday the Secular Coalition for America -- a group that represents the atheists, agnostic and religiously unaffiliated people in the country -- colorfully introduced the 12-months-in-the-making "Model Secular Policy Guide," a book of separation-of-church-and-state policy prescriptions.
The models, the sushi, the strawberries were the brainchild of executive director Edwina Rogers, a veteran Republican lobbyist who took over as the organization's head last year. Having worked for four senators in the past, she knew that her policy book needed to be handed down with pizzazz.
"It's hard to get people to leave their desks, they're all very busy, very competitive and so it helps to have some food and have something interesting for people to see," Rogers said. (Unfortunately neither briefing -- one for the House, one for the Senate -- was well attended, on account of Monday's snowy weather in Washington.)
As for what this cohort of 86 nontheistic groups want: it's a mix. They support the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which helps the LGBT community. ENDA passed the Senate, but not yet the House. They want "intelligent design" out of public school classrooms, but humanist chaplains included in the military. And there's those two words, "under God," which they'd like to see scrapped from the Pledge of Allegiance.
"Remember, the 'under God' in the pledge wasn't there until the Cold War," Rogers said, explaining that the phrase was added to draw a difference between good God-fearing Americans and evil atheist Communists living in the Soviet Union. "I don't think anyone expected them to be permanent, it was a Cold War PR campaign by the federal government," Rogers said.
And while another conservative Republican, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is currently on a book tour touting the idea that there's a "War on Christmas," Rogers says not so much. "Anybody can celebrate and talk about Christmas all they want, if you're not interested in Christmas it shouldn't be forced off on you," Rogers explained.
This Easter, the Secular Coalition had some issues with Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who used Senate resources to send an "overtly Christian" letter to constituents. "Easter reminds us to look past our many self-made problems and remember that God gave his only Son for our salvation," the letter read. "You shouldn't be using government staff and funds, government paper, to write a message that is so incredibly religious," Rogers argued. She met with the Louisiana Republican, only to have him send out a similar note two days later.
But besides Vitter, Rogers said she is making political progress. "When I meet with congressmen and senators and their staff and we walk them through the dictionary of the different groups and the demographics, they're all pretty shocked," she said. "We're definitely making some inroads."