I’ve been in this game for a while. One thing I’ve learned is that winning is far more fun than losing — and we have won on Thomas Paine.
A dream of our community and so many Americans is now going to be a reality. HR 6720, which authorizes the Thomas Paine Memorial Association to build a memorial to Thomas Paine, has been signed into law by President Biden. It is no longer a question if a memorial to one of America’s greatest Founders will be built in our nation’s capital, but when.
In this edition of FFRF’s Mark on the Hill, let’s talk about how we successfully passed the first bill that the secular community has led.
Why Thomas Paine?
Thomas Paine, the greatest political writer and philosopher of the Revolutionary era, was far ahead of his time. He was a freethinker who believed in the god of nature, and not in organized religion.
He galvanized the American public to support the Revolution with his pamphlet, Common Sense, which spelled out the case for independence from Great Britain. Paine then served in the Continental Army. In his other works such as The Crisis and Rights of Man, Paine fundamentally altered the political and social landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries and helped forge the United States of America. He was an eloquent advocate for equality and representative government, writing: “The true and only true basis of representative government is equality of rights.”
Thomas Paine rose from obscure roots to become a foremost political figure of his time, a friend to humanity and a foe to tyrants. He championed the rights of the “common” people and believed emphatically in human dignity and rights, which drove him to challenge the divine right of kings, forever changing the course of human history.
Clearly, Thomas Paine deserves a memorial in our nation’s capital. That’s why the Thomas Paine Memorial Association was founded, to advance a Paine memorial in D.C., and memorials around the country. FFRF is a primary member of the association, which is led by Margaret Downey from the Freethought Society. Its board includes FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor and Center For Inquiry CEO Robyn Blumner. The association is composed of other secular organizations, as well as actors, academics, philanthropists, artists and historians.
Our legislative strategy
It is an extremely complicated process to build a memorial in D.C. It requires a bill to be introduced in Congress, buy-in from a lot of different sections of American society and government agencies, a successful vote in Congress, and being signed into law by the president. Once the bill has been signed, the difficult process begins of working with numerous government agencies on site selection, project design and approval.
When the Thomas Paine bill was introduced in February 2022 by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., our strategy, which FFRF led, was to have a laser-like focus to gain the support of the members of the Natural Resources Committee where the bill was referred. Then we wanted to make sure the bill passed through the unanimous consent process. Unanimous consent is how bills that no member of Congress objects to are advanced, often through a voice vote. (Normal order is with floor speeches and procedural motion, so votes can easily become bitter and partisan, delaying or even imperiling approval.) Even with unanimous consent, passing the Thomas Paine bill was never a given. We never took any member of Congress or constituency for granted.
Getting our strategy to work
To get our strategy to work, we had to realize that the current political climate has become much more charged since the ’90s, when the first Thomas Paine Memorial Bill was signed into law (which ultimately was never constructed due to a lack of funds). Fortunately, the memorial itself was fully funded when Raskin introduced the bill, thanks to the generosity of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.
We had to make sure there wasn’t an objection to the bill from any area of American life. We developed and trained a strong cadre of volunteers who could meet with congressional offices and talk about why Thomas Paine is important to them and how his efforts are relevant to their daily lives. Our advocates talked about how Paine was relevant to their lives as African Americans, conservatives, freethinkers, Gen Z, immigrants, Republicans, scientists, veterans, or women. We made sure our materials didn’t have a partisan bent to them, and they were reviewed by our conservative and liberal allies.
We hit the Hill and met with over 30 offices. The vast majority of those meetings were with members of the House Natural Resources Committee. We met with conservative and liberal offices, and aligned speakers to answer questions that a specific office may have had about the bill or about Paine himself. We saw momentum build around the bill when Republican Rep. Jay Olbernote from California signed onto the bill in July 2022.
And, yet, we needed to clear more hurdles. A lot of times legislation can be lost if there is an objection from a government department that will ultimately manage a project. To ensure the support of the Department of the Interior, the Park Service and related agencies, we went before the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission, where we laid out our case for Thomas Paine. We didn’t enter into that meeting alone. We had the backing of a letter signed by a group of bipartisan members of Congress. Rep. Jamie Raskin took time out of his day and gave live testimony (4:44 start in the Zoom link. Use passcode gEX=E98$ to view). And so many of you also sent in your own testimonies, as well as friends from the Center For Inquiry, the Secular Coalition for America and Black Nonbelievers. All of those efforts helped obtain unanimous support from the memorial advisory commission, clearing another hurdle toward passage. My favorite line from the commission letter to Congress endorsing the bill: Commissioners generally voiced surprise that a commemorative work to honor Thomas Paine had not already been established in Washington, D.C.
Victory was still not guaranteed. Rep. Raskin did an excellent job of working with Rep. Victoria Spartz, a Republican from Indiana, to sign on as a co-lead of the bill. This step was significant because it meant that Spartz supported the bill and she was going to dedicate resources such as staff time to help pass the bill.
Thanks to all of those factors — a fully funded memorial, a solid coalition of supporters who could relate their diverse lived experiences to Thomas Paine, support from National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission, and strong bipartisan support — we had a lot of momentum going to a vote in the House Natural Resources Committee. We achieved our strategic objective, and the Thomas Paine bill was unanimously supported in committee on Dec. 8 last year. That late action meant we only had a few weeks to get the bill signed into law by President Biden. If the bill was not signed by Jan. 3, when a new Congress started, then the entire legislative process would have to begin again.
Once more, thanks to the tremendous leadership of Rep. Raskin, he was able to insert the bill into the large omnibus bill, which was then signed by President Biden on Dec. 29.
Now that the bill has passed Congress, the truly hard part, establishing the memorial and working with numerous government agencies, begins. Plus the Thomas Paine Memorial Association still needs to fundraise to pay for the required consultation with memorial and architectural experts in D.C.
The bill gives us seven years to start construction before it lapses. Our goal: to have the memorial completed by July 4, 2026, for the 250th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
We have accomplished so much. Politically, we have shown that the secular community led a bill, organized a coalition, and followed a smart and effective strategy to pass the bill. We have shown that FFRF and our coalition can deliver, which means ever more legislative opportunities to advance our secular goals through Congress.
Stay tuned for more — you’re going to want to see what happens next.
All the best,
Director of Governmental Affairs
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.