RBG and the 116th Congress: Dispatches from Mark Dann, FFRF’s rep on Capitol Hill

If there’s a common thread in my thoughts from Capitol Hill this year, it’s the combination of dark and light moments: pessimism and fear coupled with tangible examples of victories and reasons for optimism. Like many of you, I’m living this emotional conflict. On one side, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died and a zealous ideologue, Amy Coney Barrett, has been nominated to “replace” her. On the other side, I’m optimistic because of the gains we have made in Congress and with the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Let’s talk about both of these sentiments.

The loss of a titan and the rise of a zealot
I don’t “stress eat” all that often. When I learned about the death of Justice Ginsburg, it was one of those times. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe near my home. There’s a cake shop next to the cafe. You can guess what happened.

Despite all of our hurt and pain, we have all collectively realized what is at stake: Barrett will eviscerate the separation of state and church, and grant vast religious exemptions that will solidify a legal route for discrimination. With a 6-3 ultraconservative majority, she will be free to strike down Roe v. Wade and turn the clock back on what it means to be a full and free citizen. In the upcoming Fulton v. Philadelphia case, a conservative supermajority can exceed its authority and allow anyone to claim a religious exemption to anti-discrimination laws for any reason. If someone doesn’t like your religion or lack of it, you can be denied medical coverage, accommodations, housing or government services. You name it and such discrimination in the name of religion will be legal.

We have rallied against Barrett’s nomination as a movement. FFRF and 13 other secular groups have committed themselves to fighting this nomination.

FFRF has put out two press releases, six national action alerts and a comprehensive resource document. You’ve collectively made thousands of calls to your senators. We’ve invited you to join a campaign to make patch-through calls encouraging others who live in key states to take action. Those numbers will continue to increase throughout the nomination process.

Every day, more and more people are realizing why courts matter and why we need to be diligent in our oversight of the courts and the nomination process. The goal of all of your efforts is to make a vote to confirm Barrett as tough as possible, and that is already happening.

October 2018 versus October 2020
Despite these trying times, we can be optimistic. We have seen in the House and in the Congressional Freethought Caucus what can be done. Let’s take a look at where we were going into this Congress (October 2018) and where we are today (October 2020) as this Congress ends.

Congressional Freethought Caucus
The Congressional Freethought Caucus was first established with nine members in October 2018, and Rep. Jared Huffman, Calif., made history as the only “out” freethinker in Congress. The caucus opposed the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. It formally raised cogent concerns over the Religious Liberty Task Force to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

By October 2020, the Congressional Freethought Caucus is known for action. Three first-term members have joined: Two are from swing districts, Reps. Sean Casten, Ill., and Susan Wild, Pa., and the third is the caucus’ first Muslim member, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Mich. The caucus has delivered on:

  • Passing a bipartisan resolution condemning international blasphemy laws that target nonbelievers and dissident believers in foreign countries out of committee.
  • Using appropriations to deny funding for regulations and entities within departments that seek to discriminate using the guise of religious liberty.
  • Opposing Christian Nationalist judges like district court nominee Justin Walker.
  • Opposing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights’ report.
  • Hosting national and international leaders such as Daniel Dennett, Jason Rezaian, Rebecca Hamilton and Bonya Ahmed.
  • Supporting key pieces of legislation, such as the No BAN Act and the FGM Act of 2020.

Johnson Amendment
Repealing the Johnson Amendment, which would have allowed churches to participate in political activities and turned churches into pass-through money laundering operations for tax-deductible political contributions, was a top priority for the Religious Right in the last Congress. It didn’t happen. The Trump administration claimed it could repeal the Johnson Amendment through executive action. Thanks to FFRF’s work in the courts, we were able to prove the Trump administration had no such authority.

Today, the Johnson Amendment is safe, and any action on it will be blocked in Congress.

Do No Harm Act
The Do No Harm Act, which ensures that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can’t be used to discriminate in government and private services, stalled with 175 co-sponsors at the end of the last Congress.

Today, the Do No Harm Act is gaining momentum. It had a hearing and is becoming far more popular and less controversial in the House. It has 214 co-sponsors, and we are just four co-sponsors away from the majority of House members supporting the bill. The Do No Harm Act is primed to move in the next Congress.

Equality Act, Scientific Integrity Act, No BAN Act, STOP FGM Act of 2020
Most of these bills stalled or didn’t exist in October 2018. Now, in October 2020, they have all passed out of the House or House committee.

  • The STOP FGM Act of 2020, which prohibits Female Genital Mutilialtion (FGM) on a minor, was unanimously passed by a voice vote and it could start moving in the Senate.
  • The Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, passed 236-173.
  • The Scientific Integrity Act prevents political appointees from meddling in publicly funded scientific research. It passed, as part of the Heroes Act (COVID Relief Bill), 208-199.
  • The No BAN Act eliminates the Muslim Ban, limits presidential authority to suspend or restrict immigration and prohibits religious discrimination in immigration-related decisions. It passed 233-133.
  • The Blasphemy Resolution, which calls on the president and the State Department to prioritize the global repeal of blasphemy laws, passed out of committee.

Things are moving. Christian Nationalism is not winning. As Andrew Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response, puts it, “Christian Nationalists are raging against the dying of their privilege. They’re doing damage, but we can still recover.” We are making progress together. We have demographics and history on our side. We have shown that we are a force that has arrived.

All the best,

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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