Earlier this year, I spoke about how our strategic goal is to go on the offensive and we are doing that. I am pleased to report that this has been our most productive quarter — and we’re continuing to put points on the board.
In this dispatch of Mark on the Hill, we’ll talk about how we are advancing the Thomas Paine memorial and judicial reform, how we’ve introduced legislation to rein in health care sharing ministries, have had solid wins in Appropriations, have worked with the Congressional Freethought Caucus to call out abuse in the tax code from religious actors, and how the Jan. 6 committee highlighted the impact of white Christian nationalism on the attack.
As we talk about outcomes, I really want to share with you how these successes happened, and how they fit into our overall strategic vision. These successes did not happen by themselves or overnight. They happened because we’ve got a smart and sophisticated team, and because we’ve built solid, long-term and enduring partnerships with religious and nonreligious allies and key offices on the Hill.
Thomas Paine memorial
The Thomas Paine memorial is moving in Congress. The bill is now bipartisan. We cleared a major procedural hurdle with the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission and got the blessing of the Department of the Interior and related federal agencies. There is a good chance that the bill will pass out of committee in the near future.
This success was not accidental. We began to work closely with the office of Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., to introduce a piece of legislation to construct a memorial to Thomas Paine in Washington, D.C., before Covid struck. He introduced the legislation in February. Once the bill was introduced, a team of us from FFRF, the Thomas Paine Memorial Association, Center For Inquiry and the Secular Coalition for America kept engaging the Hill to obtain co-sponsors and build support for the memorial.
At the same time, we started to prepare for the advisory commission’s presentation. The commission’s support is critical because it signals to Congress that the project is feasible and it concurs with current law. We obtained its support with a clear strategy to highlight popular support for the project and showcase congressional involvement. At the meeting, Raskin gave the commission a master class on the historical importance of Thomas Paine and his office led a congressional sign-on letter with 11 members that demonstrated bipartisan support.
After that, we had speakers talk about the importance of Thomas Paine from the perspectives of freethinkers, veterans, conservatives, African Americans and the youth. The commission voted unanimously to support the bill, paving the way for future success in Congress.
Health care sharing ministries
Health care sharing ministries are a form of health coverage in which members — who are required to share a system of religious or ethical beliefs — make monthly payments to cover health expenses of other members. They do not have to comply with the consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act, do not guarantee payment for medical claims, provide limited benefits for their members, and are largely unregulated and shielded by religious exemptions. About 1.7 million Americans subscribe to health care sharing ministries, and it is an industry that is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. (You may have seen a special on John Oliver’s show about them.)
In July, Congressional Freethought Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., introduced the Health Share Transparency Act to rein in health care sharing ministries. This bill is one of my favorites because it is a solid piece of legislation that puts the religious right on the defensive. The bill shows that the Congressional Freethought Caucus is going to be asserting itself.
The Health Share Transparency Act’s introduction was not automatic. We’ve been working on health care sharing ministries for over a year. After John Oliver’s show, interest started to grow in Congress to learn more about these organizations, how they work, and what can be done to rein them in. Andrew Torrez, a leading expert, presented to members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Huffman appeared on Freethought Matters to talk about these entities. And the Congressional Freethought Caucus sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to protect consumers from such health care organizations. It became apparent that legislation was needed to curb these outfits — and that’s why Huffman introduced the Health Share Transparency Act.
Family Research Council and the IRS
Rep. Huffman continues to go on the offensive. After a ProPublica report revealed how right-wing Christian organizations like the Family Research Council have been able to change their tax status to an “Association of Churches” to avoid public accountability and scrutiny, Reps. Huffman and Suzan DelBene, D-Wa., developed a congressional sign-on letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and the IRS commissioner. Over three dozen members of Congress signed onto the letter, and we’re awaiting the Treasury’s response.
This letter may also give us an opportunity to discuss with members of Congress the need for 990 reform, where all nonprofit organizations, secular and religious, must file the same information with the IRS.
We have been horrified with the recent Supreme Court decisions that erode the separation of state and church and key freedoms. FFRF knew that the federal courts would become more hostile toward keeping religion and government separate. We made a clear decision to start investing in governmental affairs to preserve our critical freedoms. One of our key projects is to reform our courts. We became a member of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights (a coalition of like-minded justice organizations) Fair Courts Task Force and have used that membership to actively support and oppose judicial nominees. We slowed down and opposed numerous nominees of previous President Trump, have been working to get more justices who support the separation of state and church, and recently urged the Senate to make sure judicial appointments remain a high priority.
This Congress, we have seen traction on court reform, particularly with the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, which helps to make sure the conflicts like the one Ginni Thomas poses are no longer legal. This bill, with FFRF’s support, got out of committee and we are helping to get it onto the House floor. We’re also advancing more dynamic court reform legislation. We have been working with critical allies, such as Demand Justice, on checking the power of the Supreme Court by expanding it with the Judiciary Act of 2021. We are diligently working to gain more co-sponsors on both of these pieces of legislation with our allies to gain the support of more members.
Part of our success is because of Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who is a member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus and is the chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Courts. He is championing all of the judicial reform bills, and he has appeared on Freethought Matters to discuss his work.
We’ve had two significant victories in appropriations this year. The first is that FFRF called for and secured an increased amount of funding for IRS enforcement. The IRS can use these additional funds to help enforce the Johnson Amendment. Although the appropriations process is far from over, we expect that this level of funding will remain, and we will then work with the IRS on the importance of enforcing the Johnson Amendment.
The second appropriations win was to help solidify Ann Druyan’s humanistic vision of space exploration, in conjunction with Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute’s efforts to increase funding for early-stage research. In the House Appropriations package, Congress wants NASA and its external partners to “maintain the ability to address long-term strategic goals rather than only focusing on short-term, mission-specific objectives.” A key part of fulfilling Ann’s vision is for NASA to think more broadly about where, how, and with what values it wants to explore space over the next 100 years.
Jan. 6th and white Christian nationalism
The Jan. 6 committee is extremely intentional about how it is presenting information to the American public. It was not an accident that it showed a clip of Roger Stone encouraging protesters the night before the Jan. 6 attack, thus linking the assault on the Capitol to white Christian nationalism.
Building into the committee’s work, we produced a report, with our friends from the Baptist Joint Committee and leading authors, that demonstrated how white Christian nationalism was a leading influence on the attack. Rep. Huffman, after reading the report, spoke about it on the House floor.
Our legislative portfolio is extremely well balanced. We have items that are very bipartisan, such as the Thomas Paine memorial. We are advancing legislation, such as the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, that is likely to pass the House and echoes the sentiments of the majority of members. And we are advancing legislation that is more forward thinking, such as the Health Share Transparency Act and the Judiciary Act of 2021. All of this is adding up to significant wins in Congress.
Despite the numerous setbacks in the courts, we will continue to advance in governmental affairs and go on the offensive. I'm extremely proud of all the work we have done. In the fall, we will start to gather our allies and continue our work to decrease congressional support for the National Prayer Breakfast. I'm hoping for more significant legislative wins in the near future.
Thank you so much for your support and advocacy efforts. Clearly, it is paying off.
All the best,
Director of Governmental Affairs
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.