FFRF attorneys join secular educational effort in D.C.

FFRF Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Sam Grover spent June 12–13 on Capitol Hill in Washington spreading secular good news to Congress. They scheduled seven meetings at congressional offices and dropped in at 20 others to let officialdom know that while the Religious Right is shrinking, the secular movement is getting stronger and more organized every day.

As a 501(c)(3) organization, FFRF can only engage in limited lobbying, but as a member of the 501(c)(4) Secular Coalition for America, FFRF is able to extend its reach. The coalition set up meetings as part of its Lobby Day, where more than 50 freethinkers had more than 60 meetings at congressional offices.

Andrew and Sam scheduled many of their own meetings and dropped in on offices to let Congress know that the demographics are changing for the better. That the “nones” is the fastest growing segment of the population, that we are getting organized, that we are a force.

While Sam contacted lawmakers to schedule meetings in addition to those organized by the coalition, Andrew drafted some eye-catching literature.

FFRF asked Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin to reconsider her co-sponsorship of the EACH Act (Equitable Access to Care and Health, HR 1814), which passed March 11 in the House. FFRF has taken a stand against this bill before. If it passes in the Senate, EACH would undercut the efficacy of the Affordable Care Act by exempting individuals with “sincerely held religious beliefs” from the requirement to get health insurance.

The bill effectively raises the cost of insurance for millions of Americans in the name of “religious liberty,” when in reality, those who object to health insurance on religious grounds are no less likely to need health care. It would also endanger children’s lives.

Andrew and Sam also alerted lawmakers and their staff to FFRF’s three ongoing lawsuits challenging various church-specific exemptions in the tax code. The lawsuits include FFRF’s parish exemption lawsuit, its challenge to the Form 990 exemption for churches and its lawsuit on the lack of enforcement of church electioneering restrictions.

While FFRF has won its challenge to the parish exemption in federal district court, a legislative effort to undermine that decision could come at any time. FFRF asked legislators to vote against any bill designed to protect the disparate treatment between churches and secular nonprofits in the tax code.

FFRF attorneys found the meetings in less-than-friendly offices to be some of the most important. Politicians who use religious rhetoric to pander to their constituencies need to know that they are alienating the country’s fastest-growing demographic by religious identification.

They also visited the House Office of the Chaplain, deep in the recesses of the Capitol, to do a little secular proselytizing. After meeting Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest who’s the 60th House chaplain, Andrew and Sam had an educational conversation with his two assistants, who didn’t quite know what to make of the polite, smiling atheists in their midst.

The conversation turned to morality and the atheists explained how it’s possible to be good without God. “Having had to reason out my moral code based on my appreciation for a shared humanity — rather than having it fed to me from a pulpit by reference to an antiquated book — has made my moral convictions all the stronger,” Sam explained.

Andrew passed along informational literature on the country’s nonreligious demographics and pointed out that the chaplain’s prayers typically exclude more than 62 million nonreligious Americans.

Andrew’s favorite moment

In between our scheduled meetings, we dropped in on numerous representatives and senators. In the one Southern lawmaker’s office, representing a state to which FFRF has written too many letters over the years, we sat down with a staffer who had been on her way out of the office. “I can give you three minutes,” she said. What can you say in three minutes, especially to a politician who scored an F on the Secular Coalition’s report card?

Quite a lot, actually. You can tell them, “the times they are a-changin’.” You can tell them, “the atheists are coming, the atheists are coming!” You can tell the staffer that when their representative invokes his or her god, they are alienating millions of Americans.

Andrew was wearing his scarlet letter, the Atheist “A” pin on his tie. “You must be a ’Bama fan,” the staffer said, referring to the University of Alabama logo.

“No, it’s worse than being a fan of the Crimson Tide, I’m an atheist,” Andrew said proudly and with a smile. “I watched as, behind her eyes, her preconceived notions and stereotypes came crashing down. Clearly, she had never met an open atheist, and certainly not on Capitol Hill. It was by far my most favorite moment of the day.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation