A Place at the Table: How the Nation’s First Congressional Lobbyist for Nontheists is Enjoying the Feast

A Place at the Table: How the Nation’s First Congressional Lobbyist for Nontheists is Enjoying the Feast

by Lori Lipman Brown, Director of the Secular Coalition for America — September 21, 2008

When I was hired to be the first paid staff of the Secular Coalition for America in 2005, the five national organizations which comprised the secular coalition at that time, really didn’t know how the first Congressional lobbyist explicitly representing nontheistic Americans would be received in Congress, in the media, and among theistic church/state separation groups. My first two days on the job, September 19th and 20th, 2005, made it clear that the Secular Coalition would be accepted and have an impact beyond most optimistic predications of its founders.

On September 19th, I was invited to attend briefings regarding religious discrimination in head start and regarding vouchers. These invitations were from coalitions which included theistic church/state separation supporters like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Interfaith Alliance, and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. The larger circle of groups also included church/state separationists who were neither theistic nor non-theistic including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way, and the ACLU, and the voucher group included a number of public education organizations.

On day two, I was included in these larger groups on approximately a dozen lobby visits. While the Secular Coalition now conducts hundreds of lobby visits each year, many of which I walk into on my own, my favorites are still the times I get to sit next to my colleagues in these larger alliances. It is admirable that the larger church/state separation community as well as numerous civil rights organizations recognized that nontheist does not equal antireligion, and that none hesitated to include what according to recent surveys is still the most hated minority group in the country – Americans who rely on nonsupernatural lifestances – that is, when it comes to societal hatred; nontheists as well as theists whose ethical basis does not require a god-belief, but rather focuses on deed before creed, are not trusted, are disparaged, are assumed to be immoral, and are discriminated against in the voting booth and in other areas of American life.

On my first night on the job, I had the opportunity to explain nontheistic ethics to a national television audience as a guest on Fox’s Big Story. Although I had no idea what the host would ask me, his first question gave me the opportunity to dispel the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes and give credit to patriotic Americans who serve in the military, but don’t share the majorities religious belief in any deity. But the second question had to do with the aftermath of the then recent tragedy – hurricane Katrina. And this question gave me the opportunity to explain the ethics of a humanistic lifestance – ON MY FIRST DAY ON THE JOB – to millions of Americans. I explained that many patriotic atheists served in the U.S. military and many would be in DC the following month for an Atheists in Foxholes event. I also explained that if I were in Hurricane Katrina, and the water were up to my neck, I wouldn’t be praying, I’d be trying to get out of the water. And then I continued by explaining that the fact that nontheists do not rely on an outside force to help people in need may explain why atheists, humanists and other nontheists have raised so much money and so many of them have gone to New Orleans to help. I explained that we believe we have to do everything we can to make the world better in this – our only life.

When I accepted this job, I WAS more excited about the prospect of living in my favorite city, Washington, DC, and finally working at a dream job for a political junkie like myself, than I was about the topic I would be lobbying on – nontheists rights. I had spent decades working on reproductive rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality. I had served as a National Education Association diversity trainer traveling the country dealing with difficult racial, ethnic, and other minority issues. So I was not certain that giving a voice to nontheists in the halls of Congress was the most important thing I could be doing.

However, it took less than 24 hours for me to realize, that what I now do for a living, is tremendously important to the daily lives of the approximately 30 million nontheists in the United States. On my first day on the job, USA Today newspaper published an article about the Secular Coalition for America and my hire. On that first day, people around the country read the article, and e-mails and phone calls started pouring in. Most were from parts of the country I had never lived in: Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, the panhandle of Florida, areas known as the bible belt and the south. Having grown up in New York, and spending most of my life in Las Vegas, Nevada, and living in Los Angeles during law school, the most uncomfortable thing about answering questions regarding my belief was that some people would automatically dislike me for not sharing a god with them. But the calls and e-mails I received that day were from people who were frightened and hiding their beliefs. One man who sounded elderly, seemed to be near tears on the phone as he told me, “I’ve never told anyone this before and I was even afraid to make this phone call, but I don’t believe in a god, and I’m so glad you are there doing this work.” Others recounted how they had lost a job suspiciously close in time to their boss finding out that they didn’t have a deity belief. That day, and during the months that followed, the most disturbing stories I heard were about how children throughout the United States were being treated. Brenda Frei, from Lawrence, Kansas described how her daughter was pushed against a fence during public school recess and the sign of the cross drawn on her forehead because Brenda’s family identify as atheist. Another parent was dealing with his son’s football coach telling the team that the boy was evil because he didn’t attend church. A third gentleman was accused of assault (but later proved completely innocent) when he objected to his daughter’s forced participation in prayer while on a public school basketball team. The harrasment this family dealt with after the complaint led to both teenagers who had been attending public school being home schooled instead. Other children were being ostracized and had no friends because they didn’t say “under god” in the pledge. This is especially offensive because so many people say to me, it doesn’t matter at all if public schools lead children in the revised post 1954 version of the pledge. Of course it matters in some parts of the country where public schools are being used to divide children based on religion. And it is especially distressing when we consider the history of the original phrase, “one nation, indivisible” written shortly after the civil war and how the 1954 addition was placed in between those words which had brought us together during a time when nontheists were the scapegoats for McCarthy’s witch hunt.

So, I realized very quickly the value of having an organization whose mission is to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States and to protect and strengthen our secular character of government as the best guarantee of freedom for all.

I mentioned that the other church/state separation groups welcomed the Secular Coalition with open arms. You might wonder how the members of Congress reacted to a lobbyist explicitly representing nontheists. In case there is any doubt about their understanding of some of the constituencies covered under the nontheist umbrella, my business card, which I have handed to about half of the United States Senators, dozens of House Representatives, and scores of congressional staffers, states across the middle, “atheists, humanists, freethinkers, americans”. And how do these folks who I lobby react? I have always been listened to and treated with respect. The Secular Coalition has had legislative successes, and while we generally target persuadable members, when constituents from around the country visit DC, we take them to their Congressional representative’s offices, regardless of how much those representatives might oppose separation of church and state. Even in the offices of Congress members whose rhetoric discloses a Theocratic mindset, we have been listened to respectfully.

I think the respectful and positive response we generally receive has a lot to do with the fact that we present information about specific bills, and how these bills affect nontheistic Americans or why nontheistic Americans care about these church/state issues. We never walk into a Congressional office to argue about personal theology. I respect every American’s right to hold whatever beliefs they wish to hold. I only object to attempts to impose others’ theology on me or my government and actions which do harm to my constituency based solely on our belief system.

Some of the areas we have lobbied on include:

· attempts to strip the Head Start program of civil rights protections against religious discrimination in hiring;

· the federal marriage amendment which attempted to impose a theological definition on CIVIL marriage contracts; expanding the stem cell lines which National Institutes of Health are permitted to use in their research;

· deleting an earmark appropriation to a creationist organization for the purpose of crafting science curriculum – by the way, after the recent defeat of this earmark, that money will instead be used to purchase lab equipment for science classes and computers;

· opposing other earmarks for religious purposes;

· replacing abstinence-only until marriage federally funded curriculum with fact-based sex education;

· ensuring access to legal pharmaceuticals including emergency contraception;

· eliminating global gag rules and permitting international AIDS funds to be spent in the most useful ways rather than setting aside 30% of those funds as only being used for abstinence only programs.

We’ve also worked against

· resolutions claiming that our history is that of a Christian nation and that government should be permitted to endorse religious symbols;

· bills to take away the courts’ right to decide our rights;

· opposition to federal funding of the Boy Scouts of America until they discontinue discriminating against members, employees, and volunteers on the basis of religion and sexual orientation; and

· a number of other bills.

But four issues that we have been working on are a bit larger than these individual bills and earmarks:

· The religion-privileging RFRA and RLUIPA;

· The military being used as a born-again Christian Crusade;

· Outrageous abuse of the President’s Faith Based Initiative grants; And

· federally funded vouchers to religious schools.

The first of these, RFRA and RLUIPA, are laws which passed in 1996 and 2000 which require courts to treat religious claims differently than nonreligious claims or claims from other religions and to privilege religion over nonreligion in land use and zoning regulations, drug law, anti-discrimination civil rights laws, and other areas. The best example of how the land use part of these laws has been abused is current litigation in Boulder, Colorado, where a megachurch claims that the County of Boulder discriminated against them when it denied a sixth request for a zoning variance which would have doubled the church’s size and curtailed the open space that these regulations were designed to protect. The claim of discrimination comes AFTER Boulder County had APPROVED the first five zoning variance requests which this church made – each of which expanded the church beyond its zoning limitations. Compare this with a friend of mine who is unable to get a fourth story on his three story townhouse in DC because unfortunately, his townhouse is not a church.

As to drug law, we live in a country where our U.S. Supreme Court denies a woman in California dealing with cancer the legal use of medical marijuana, but the UDV church under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is permitted to use otherwise illegal hallucinogenic drugs. The Secular Coalition for America takes no position on whether the drug laws should be in place, but we would like all Americans to be treated the same regarding any laws which are enforced. If the state interest in making drugs illegal is not sufficient to override the use of such drugs by a church, then it should not be deemed sufficient to be enforced against the patient. Her only disadvantage being that she is not a member of a church which requires her drug as a sacrament. Now before any of you get the wonderful idea of starting a church whose tenets include the use of medical marijuana to ease pain, a few lower courts have held against new churches which wanted to use the drug – determining that they are not a “sincere religions”. Consider how dangerous it becomes when the courts are placed in the position of determining which religions are sufficiently sincere to receive legal privileges that others do not get.

As to our nation’s military, I have heard from veterans who served before the extreme religious right obtained a stranglehold on positions of power in the Pentagon and our military throughout the world. They are appalled at the atmosphere of proselytizing and the harassments of non-Christians as well as of Christians who are not identified as born-again in today’s military. In 2006, the House actually passed an amendment to the department of defense appropriations bill which would have explicitly allowed military chaplains to proselytize unwilling soldiers. We work across party lines, and I am proud to report that Republican Senator Warner from Virginia was the driving force behind quashing that amendment. This year, a soldier stationed in Iraq, Jeremy Hall was threatened with punishment when attempting to hold an approved freethought meeting, after being challenged for identifying as an atheist when asked why he wasn’t praying over Thanksgiving dinner. When Hall finally sued to protect his right to hold meetings similar to those held for religious soldiers regularly, he was treated so badly that he expressed fear for his life – not from the admitted dangers of serving in Iraq, but from his own fellow soldiers. He is now stationed in the U.S. for his own safety, but was recently passed over for a promotion. He was told that the reason for the denial was that if he would not pray with his troops, he could not be a good leader. Even stateside, the death threats against Hall continue.

Pentagon officials, one of whom was later assigned to be a liaison in Turkey, a secular nation which is majority Muslim, appeared in uniform in a fundraising video for the evangelical group Christian Embassy, a group which has become so powerful that the officials who appeared in the video thought it was a quasi-federal organization. We are currently working alongside the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and through SCA’s member organization, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, to bring the over 6,000 complaints which have accumulated over the last two years to the attention of members of Congress, and the Secular Coalition for America will hold a press conference on the Monday that Veterans Day will be celebrated to highlight the need for a policy which protects the freedom of conscience of all military personnel.

Faith based initiatives are another area that is tremendously complex, but terribly flawed. When the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a member organization of the Secular Coalition for America, attempted to challenge the unconstitutional activities conducted by the White House office of faith-based initiatives, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to address the alleged constitutional violations, saying that taxpayers had no right to challenge expenditures made by the President or the executive branch agencies – only expenditures made specifically by Congressional budgets. This decision added immediacy to our ongoing efforts to convince Congress to deal with the faith-based initiative problems directly. Those problems include allegations that secular social service providers are loosing grants because some grant-makers are throwing out any grant applications which do not appear to be from Christian groups; that there is no oversight or accountability for how the religious groups are using the money and whether they are following the law regarding limiting the funds to non-proselytizing social service activities. And that these groups are assumed to have good results – with no proof of such results – merely because they are religious. Groups like Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing received your tax funded federal grant-money, and it did not have to comply with constitutional church/state standards – or at least no one was checking to see if it met such standards. And the most frustrating piece of this puzzle, is that the rhetoric claiming that faith-based groups were not already on an level playing field to apply for federal grants under President Clinton’s charitable choice provisions – has convinced many Americans that the current religion-privileging set-up is just an attempt to make all groups equal. And even that charitable choice language which appears in federal programs such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency is now being used to discriminate in employment based on religion. When charitable choice language was passed in the ‘90’s a number of church/state separation groups warned of this and were told no one would ever interpret it that way, but the White House website under the current administration, encourages faith-groups to take government money and refuse to hire those of other religious beliefs to carry out the federally funded services. This year, the Secular Coalition for America joined with a number of allied groups and succeeded in keeping the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency language from being approved with charitable choice in it. It is currently awaiting further work before reauthorization. This is a huge success, in that some members of the committee which had this bill wanted to push it out as is, and it is the first program containing charitable choice language to come up for reauthorization, so adding civil rights protections will be an important precedent as other programs come due to be reauthorized.

Both major party presidential candidates are touting faith-based initiatives, but the Secular Coalition for America joined with dozens of other national organizations in signing a letter which was sent to both candidates and both campaigns citing all of the problems with the program. You can see a link to the entire document on the Secular Coalition’s website, secular.org.

We are opposing reauthorization of a federal religious school voucher program. The Senate appropriations committee recently extended what was supposed to be a five year experiment ending in 2009 for an additional year, but next year, Congress will decide whether to reauthorize it for the long haul. Under this voucher scheme, entitled Opportunity Scholarship Program, parents of children in DC whose household income is up to 300% of the poverty line receive federal funds of up to $7,500 per child to send their child to a participating non-public school. Nearly all of the schools participating are religious schools, leading the Government Accountability Office to conclude that the program does not give parents sufficient secular choices. The GAO further concluded that public schools in DC have greater choice via magnet and charter programs. Amazingly, the DC program does not even include protections which some state voucher programs have – such as the right of participating students to opt out of religious services and prohibition against religious discrimination in admissions for participating schools.

The fringe folks like Bill O’Reilly aside, the Secular Coalition for America has seen an outpouring of support. The coalition has a star-studded advisory board. Though the coalition started with four national organizations, it now includes nine; the most recent being the welcome addition of the American Ethical Union this year. We recently launched a website to provide resources for secular values voters during the election cycle. With individual donations from people all over the U.S., we grew from a paid staff of one person to now enjoying the work of three full-time and two part-time staffers.

Media coverage has been extensive with articles from national press such as The Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post covering us, as well as international coverage in London, the Netherlands, Ireland, and even BBC radio. My most recent appearance was on The Colbert Report, and yes, it is a satire show. Yes, it is supposed to be funny. And yes, I had a great time with it – I love the use of humor to make important points. I can’t list all of the print, radio, television, and podcast media in today’s talk, but I encourage everyone to see the list on our website, www.secular.org. The other thing I encourage everyone to do on that website is to sign up for our e-alerts. While much of what we do is to quietly kill bad bills behind the scenes through committee members and to quietly encourage additional cosponsors for good bills, there are times when grassroots activists sending e-mails and making phone calls makes all the difference. We send these alerts when grassroots communication is called for – thus some of our e-alert recipients complain about not hearing from us more often. But when a congressmember has already heard from a few hundred of their own constituents before I walk into a lobby visit to discuss the issue, it makes a tremendous difference. In addition to responding to e-alert requests for Congressional e-mails, other actions you can take which will help us to be more effective, include writing letters to the editor and op eds for your local paper, participating in our annual lobby days in Washington, DC – the next one will be in June, 2009, being out as a nontheist as much as is comfortable and maybe even occasionally when it isn’t all that comfortable; supporting the Brooklyn Ethical Society and the safe haven and ethical education it affords not only the adults in our ranks, but also the most vulnerable in our society, our children. Think about running for political office yourself.

And of course, for those who are constrained in terms of time, but not financial resources, organizations like the Secular Coalition for America rely on checkbook activists to be able to have a full-timer lobbying for you – the Secular Coalition even has a wonderful network of monthly donors who donate a little bit, but they do so every month

I am overjoyed at the success that the Secular Coalition for America is having in our nation’s capitol. I am hearing more inclusion of our constituency in Congressmembers’ speeches, and committee comments. The first out nontheistic member of Congress, Pete Stark, allowed the Secular Coalition for America to announce this identity (specifically he identifies as a Unitarian who does not believe in a deity) because … we asked. And Stark accepted the Humanist of the Year award at the American Humanist Association’s national conference which was held in conjunction with the International Humanist conference in Wasington, DC this past June.

No civil rights struggle has ever been won when a minority stands alone. Men had to vote to give women the vote; numerous young black men had been murdered before the death of white freedom riders drew national attention to the fight for racial equality; and LGBT Americans needed allies in the other 90% of the population to see advances towards full equality. I have been an ally in other minority’s struggles, and I applaud our theistic allies who are willing to stand up for the approximately 10% of Americans who fall into some category of nontheism. The Secular Coalition for America is extremely proud that our application to become a member of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s premiere civil rights organization, was accepted. For the civil rights community to recognize nontheists as both allies in others’ struggles for acceptance, and also as a minority whose own rights need to be protected in an increasingly theocratic political climate is tremendous.

I am so fortunate to be working in a field in which I get to live my Humanist values every day – I have the opportunity to stand up, not only for us thick-skinned civilian adults, but also for the children who are being harassed and ostracized for not identifying with theism, for our men and women in the military whose freedom of conscience and religious liberty is being quashed, for patriotic taxpayers who are currently required to subsidize religious activities, and to work side by side with theistic allies.

For Brenda Frei’s daughter in Kansas, for the elderly gentleman in Tennessee, for the millions of fellow humanists and other nontheists throughout the country, I am proud to be their voice in the halls of Congress. I hope you feel the same pride, and support the Secular Coalition for America’s work. Thank you so very much.

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