Mark Dann: Lessons for the secular movement

Mark DannSummer is ending and that means a few things: back to school, the Emmys, Packers season for our friends at the home office in Wisconsin — and Congress coming back into session after the August recess. FFRF is working with Congress on two critical pieces of legislation to push back against the Christian Nationalist agenda: the Do No Harm Act and the No BAN Act. We want to put these bills in the strongest position so that the next Congress can make them law. The LGBTQ movement’s success with the Equality Act provides a model for our strategy.

Do No Harm Act and No BAN Act Overview:
The Do No Harm Act amends the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to ensure that no one can seek religious exemption from laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights. RFRA is the bill that saddled Americans with the terrible decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which allowed a for-profit company to deny its employees health coverage of contraception based on the religious objections of the company's owners. FFRF has opposed RFRA since day one and ultimately seeks a full repeal. In the meantime, the Do No Harm Act will curb some of RFRA’s most harmful abuses.

The No BAN Act prohibits the government from discriminating in immigration on the basis of religion — including discriminating against those with no religion. This is particularly important to FFRF, which has helped several atheists flee death sentences from Muslim-majority countries, including some targeted by Trump’s Muslim ban. Just as the Constitution bars a religious test for public office, we believe it also bars a religious test for immigration or citizenship. We told the Supreme Court as much. We know that the ban precedent will ultimately be used against nonbelievers.

Equality Act as a Guide:
The Equality Act, which secures LGBTQ individuals rights as equal citizens in several key areas, including employment, housing, and places of public accommodation, can serve as a model to advance our key legislation. There are three things, in addition to the substance of the bill, that make the Equality Act a remarkable legislative achievement: the floor debate, the number of co-sponsors, and the bill number.

Floor Debate:
Look at the video from the Equality Act floor debates. Typically, the debate order is one member supporting the legislation and then one member opposing. Remarkably, members opposing the bill ran out of speakers. The Equality Act got 173 “no” votes but only a handful of members willing to actually speak out against the bill on the House floor.

The most precious commodity in Congress is time. How a member spends her time is extremely illuminating. Members of Congress have endless to-do lists, so when a member does or doesn’t do something, it’s always instructive. Despite the many “no” votes, only 11 members used their precious time to denounce the Equality Act. Congressional leaders, LGBTQ organizations and millions of supporters positioned the bill so that there was no upside in being a vocal opponent in the bill, except in a few fundamentalist corners. We hope to follow a similar path with the Do No Harm Act and the No BAN Act.

Co-Sponsors:
The average number of staff members in a congressional office, including the D.C. and the district office, is 14. Those 14 people are responsible for covering the entire federal government, managing the member’s schedule, responding to constituent requests for roughly 710,000 people who live in the member’s district, engaging the media and putting up with governmental affairs people like me.

There are three levels of commitment a legislator can take to support a bill: primary sponsor, cosponsor, and an affirmative vote. The higher the level of legislator commitment, the more staff resources go to supporting the bill. The highest level of commitment is for a member to sponsor a bill. That action means a member will be dedicating a lot of staff time to advance the bill, such as working with other offices to gain support for the bill, media engagement, collaborating with advocacy groups, getting feedback from other members and the public, etc. The next level of commitment is to be a co-sponsor of a bill. The final level of commitment is an affirmative vote for the bill. A vote does not require many resources.

The primary sponsor of the Equality Act is Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. Cicilline chairs the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which develops messaging and media discipline for the 235 Democratic members. You may have seen his numerous appearances on Fox News. Commitment from a high-ranking member like Cicilline means the bill is more likely to move.

The Equality Act has a whopping 240 co-sponsors. That’s a huge number, but that result didn’t happen overnight. The first version of the Equality Act was introduced in 1974. It took thousands of lobbying hours with staff and members in D.C. and at the district offices, showing up at town hall meetings, signing petitions, writing letters to the editor, storytelling, and engaging media with stories and op-eds to get the bill into this position.

A key part of our strategy with the Do No Harm and No BAN Acts is to lift the number of cosponsors from 133 and 170, respectfully, to over 218 (the votes needed to pass a bill out of the House). We’re going to need your help to accomplish this goal.

Bill Number: HR 5
The third most important resource in the House is the Speaker. She decides if a bill gets to the floor, rules for debate, and committee assignments. If the Speaker supports an initiative, it usually happens in the House. The Equality Act’s bill number (HR 5) is extremely telling. The Speaker gets to designate the top 10 bill numbers. The Equality Act demonstrated that it has the full force of the Speaker behind it. When a bill is the Speaker’s, she will move it. We hope to get the Do No Harm Act or the No BAN act to be one of the Speaker’s top 10 bills for next Congress, though this goal will be the hardest to obtain.

Looking Ahead after the 2020 Elections:
The window to pass pro-secular legislation after the 2020 elections may only be open for a short time — or not at all. The bills that have the highest support in Congress, with the American public, and which need little debate or amendments are going to move first. The others will sit and wait. They may be waiting until the window has closed. We need your help to make sure these bills are a top priority for Congress.

If you live in the Washington, D.C., area and want to help educate members on the No BAN Act and/or the Do No Harm Act, Click Here. You can also write to your Member of Congress and ask them to support the Do No Harm Act. Look for more opportunities in the near future.

We hope you can join our efforts.

All the best,

Mark Dann Signature

Mark Dann
Director of Governmental Affairs
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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