Heretic on the Hill: Active Advocacy for Secularism

By Scott MacConomy, SCA’s Director of Policy and Government Affairs.

Regular readers of Heretic on the Hill will recall that I just started at the Secular Coalition for America in July. That did not stop me from taking some time off in August, mostly due to prepaid vacation plans made last spring. But just because I’m not on the Hill doesn’t mean I’m not on the job. I happened to travel to the same place as Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), both of whom held public appearances while we were there, meaning they spoke for a while and then answered questions from the audience. What could be more fun?

Congressman Raskin focused on the events in Washington and in several states since the November election, specifically the invasion of the Capitol in January and the effects around the country of the idea/opinion/lie that the election was stolen. Congressman Raskin is one of the founding members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus and therefore one of our best friends at SCA. I introduced myself before the program and thanked him for his efforts on the Freethought Caucus.

After he spoke Congressman Raskin took questions from the audience. I asked if there was a bill in Congress that would codify in law the idea that no one including the President is above the law. This is important because currently it is up to the Justice Department to decide whether a sitting president can be tried in court for, I don’t know, obstruction of justice for example. And for several decades the policy there has been that a President cannot be tried in court, that the appropriate venue for this is the impeachment process in Congress. I’m simplifying a lot here but I just think we need a law passed so we don’t have to rely on the office manual at the Justice Department on something this consequential.

Congressman Raskin smiled at the question and said that the President could just ignore that law too, but then gave an erudite, five-minute explanation about the separation of powers and how we shouldn’t need a law because the Constitution includes everything necessary to address this type of situation. However, he did seem interested in the idea.

Congresswoman Pressley spoke about her background, her role as someone who speaks not for the voiceless, because as she pointed out everyone has a voice, but “for those who are unheard.” She also spoke about items on the progressive agenda such as student loan forgiveness.

One takeaway from all this is that if I can find two Members of Congress to go listen to while on vacation, you can keep up with where your representatives are appearing in your area and go hear them and meet them yourself.

Capitol Hill is usually quiet in August although this time the Senate finally passed the President’s infrastructure bill and the House briefly came back from vacation to set the stage to pass that bill and to begin debating the similarly enormous human infrastructure bill in September. One piece of good news for the secular agenda is that we now have a Senator who will introduce the Do No Harm Act after Labor Day. Until now the bill has only been introduced in the House. We have started asking other Senators to cosponsor the bill as soon as it is introduced.

Sometimes in a slow August in Washington you end up reading tea leaves about future events, such as future Supreme Court vacancies. We are seeing many issues concerning church/state separation decided there, and the liberal wing is already down to three justices. One of them, Justice Stephen Breyer, gave an interview in which he gave some hope to those who would like him to retire while there is a Democratic President to nominate his successor and a Democratic Senate to confirm him or her.

At 83 Justice Breyer is the oldest member of the Court. Justices often announce their retirement at the end of a Court term in early summer, but he did not do so. Earlier this year he sounded like he enjoyed what he was doing and didn’t think politics should enter into this type of decision. (His new book is titled, “The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics.”) However, in a recent interview he allowed that he was including his successor in his retirement deliberations.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was encouraged to retire while President Obama could choose her successor, but she did not and President Trump made the choice. Justice Breyer knows that. He also knows that if the Republicans pick up one seat in the Senate next fall, Senator Mitch McConnell will be the majority leader again. And it has become obvious that when Mitch McConnell is majority leader, Republican Presidents always get to fill Supreme Court vacancies, no matter when they occur, and Democratic Presidents never do.

If you are planning to see one of your representatives at an event or in their office you can find information on SCA policy positions on the website. You can find a handout to give them on the Do No Harm Act here. If you have questions about setting up a meeting or about our policies you can contact me at [email protected].

Be sure to sign up to our email list to receive a copy of Heretic on the Hill in your inbox, Scott’s bi-monthly update on our advocacy work on behalf of nontheist Americans and the separation of religion and government.

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