Heretic on the Hill: A Strong Coalition

The Secular Coalition for America is running at full-steam with our lobbying efforts with the 117th Congress and Biden Administration. Last November we issued our Secular Agenda, a comprehensive list of legislative and executive actions that the secular advocacy community will be pursuing. Our lobbying team has been hard at work implementing our plan, and meetings with key Congressional staff have already begun to positive effect. We also have been in contact with the new administration to ensure that the secular community has a seat at the table when policy issues are being decided. Just recently, our coalition sent a letter to the White House Domestic Policy Council to ensure our community is included in its efforts to embed equity principles, policies, and approaches across the Federal Government, as prescribed by Executive Order.

Each year, leadership from our coalition’s 19 member organizations gather to discuss the previous year’s challenges and successes, and lay out our plan of action for the year ahead. For obvious reasons, this year’s Members’ Meeting was held virtually.

The Members’ Meeting included a report from a panel of lobbyists and lawyers from our coalition, who provided information relative to current and future issues (legal & legislative) that coalition leaders should be aware of. Joining me on this year’s panel were: Mark Dann, Director of Governmental Affairs for the Freedom from Religion Foundation; Alison Gill, Vice President of Legal and Policy for American Atheists; Rebecca Markert, Legal Director for the Freedom from Religion Foundation; and Monica Miller, Legal Director and Senior Counsel for the American Humanist Association.

Casey Brinck:
I spoke on several of the Secular Coalition’s goals, including ensuring strict enforcement of the Johnson Amendment to combat the inciting rhetoric being preached at places of worship in certain parts of the nation. The lack of enforcement from the previous administration has had disastrous consequences, including the storming of the Capitol on January 6th. I also spoke to the coalition’s ability to make new inroads with our elected officials following the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, and the inability for them to turn a blind eye in the future when we speak to the real threat of Christian nationalism.

To enhance the coalition’s involvement in policy decisions and drafting legislation, I mentioned our increased focus on building new relationships with committee staff, as that is where the rubber meets the road when policy is being decided.

Alison Gill:
Alison discussed the wave of negative bills we saw introduced in state legislatures across the nation recently, inspired by the Espinoza v. Montana decision last summer. Alison also touched on the 40+ state-level bills that support shutdown exemptions for places worship due to COVID-19. Both issues are a concern to our community, and SCA will continue to speak out against these proposals which endanger the public health, and undermine the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

“We are seeing something unique during this pandemic, what I am calling public health religious exemptions. We are seeing forty different bills across the country in different states that allow religious organizations to be exempted from public health restrictions meant to prevent the spread of COVID.” – Alison Gill

Mark Dann:
Mark spoke on the specific legislative priorities for the coalition in the 117th Congress, and our paths forward for success. Mark touched on the coalition’s ongoing efforts to undo the over three dozen Trump administrative orders, regulations, and commissions that composed the Christian nationalist efforts of the Trump administration. Mark also noted the Biden administration’s aggressive stance thus far on the issues that matter to us including, repealing the muslim ban; rejoining the Paris climate agreement; ordering mandatory mask wearing on federal property; enacting a science-based response to the COVID-19 pandemic; ending the transgender military ban; ending the global gag rule on abortions; and banning discrimination based on gender, identity, and sexual orientation. While encouraged by the actions of the new administration, SCA will continue our efforts to reverse the extensive damage done by the previous administration.

Rebecca Merkert:
Rebecca talked about the Supreme Court’s increased interest in “religious liberty” cases, and how the conservative majority court is destroying the wall between religion and government by privileging religion through the expansion of exemptions. Rebecca also touched on how the court is finding ways to protect religious institutions from so-called discrimination. Rebecca spoke about Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case regards same sex prospective foster parents and Catholic Social Services who, under the guise of “religious liberty”, have denied the couple services. The Secular Coalition for America continues to fight for true religious freedom and will always stand against this type of discrimination.

Alison Gill:
This time wearing her attorney’s hat (literally, see photo above), Alison was pleased to share with the group that a lawsuit has been brought against the Department of Education to overturn a rule passed by the Trump Administration shortly before he left office. The rule established that public universities and colleges must allow religious groups to be on campus, be recognized, and get funding even if they discriminate and violate student codes that nonreligious student groups must still abide by. The primary plaintiff in the suit is fellow SCA member organization, the Secular Student Alliance. American Atheists and the Secular Student Alliance argue that the case should be overturned because it gives special privileges in a public forum for religion — a violation of free speech principles as previously ruled by the Supreme Court. Additionally, the Department of Education has no authority to regulate free speech because it’s not in their mandate.

Monica Miller:
Monica spoke to the coalition about Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. She noted how the case was deliberated on the basis that the state’s income-tax credit program, which funneled public dollars to individuals and organizations, could then donate to scholarship organizations that in turn donated funds to religious schools. The Supreme Court’s decision flipped the Establishment Clause and the separation of religion and government on its head, and in the process, direct taxpayer dollars were sent to fund religious education.

Monica further explained that by the time the statute reached the Supreme Court for a decision, it had become obsolete. However, despite being struck down by the Montana Supreme Court, the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court took the case.

“Trying to anticipate what’s going to happen from the Supreme Court, when it’s something that shouldn’t happen, is really hard to predict.” – Monica Miller

Following our annual meeting, I can confidently state that our coalition is stronger than it has ever been. Our professional team of lobbyists and lawyers are a “dream team” for our secular community, and I am humbled to be a member.

 

The Secular Coalition for America is eager to take advantage of the opportunities before us, and I know that together we will be making great progress.

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