If Woody Allen was correct that "showing up is 80 percent of life," then fellow FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and I have been living large in Washington, D.C.
In early March, Patrick and I spent three days on Capitol Hill, showing up at all 100 Senate offices and an additional 139 House offices, armed with data, legal analysis and policy arguments. Our goal was to advance secular issues and put a positive face on freethought on behalf of FFRF.
For this trip, we had two major issues we addressed with legislators.
The first was FFRF's opposition to the repeal or undermining of the Johnson Amendment, which President Trump promised to do throughout his campaign and at the National Prayer Breakfast in early February.
This is the regulation that prevents 501(c)(3) nonprofits and churches from advocating for or against any candidate for office. Removing this restriction would turn churches into financially unaccountable political action committees and would funnel money away from nonprofits' charitable purposes and into campaign coffers.
Our second goal was to alert legislators to the ways that school vouchers and education tax credits funnel taxpayer money to religious institutions. We presented data from Wisconsin's statewide voucher program showing that fully 100 percent of the private schools benefitting from the program are religious schools. (For more on school vouchers, see page 3.)
We scheduled meetings with 17 offices during our trip: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR).
Beyond what we scheduled in advance, we finagled an additional seven face-to-face
meetings just by showing up. We also met with committee staff for the offices where the bills we're concerned about will most likely be discussed. We distributed literature or met with staffers from the Senate Finance Committee, Senate Judiciary, House Education and Workforce, and House Ways and Means.
We walked an estimated 31 miles over three days, hauling stacks of information for distribution. We were joined on our final day by Stephen Hirtle, chair of FFRF's Executive Board, who helped open doors for meetings with three additional offices.
What we learned
First, it was important that we had a focus on one or two specific issues. With that targeted focus, we were able to have informative discussions with staff members who were directly responsible for creating policy on those issues.
Second, it is the perfect time to lobby on key legislation that impacts the secular
community. With new proposals by the Trump administration raised in Congress, our visit was timely. For example, several congressional staff members said that they were actively working on reports related to vouchers and our information was helpful. It was encouraging to see that staff members had a genuine interest in what we were saying.
Of course, we were not the only ones active on Capitol Hill. One of the most interesting aspects of our work in D.C. was seeing who else was there to lobby. I imagined ahead of time that we were most likely to see corporate lobbyists in congressional office waiting rooms. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that constituents and other advocacy organizations were out in force.
We saw activism by firefighters, disability rights advocates, and a sorority dedicated to service and programs that help the African-American community. The sorority sisters that I met made a point to mention that they also supported public schools and opposed voucher programs. It is great that constituents and advocacy groups are energized and are actively engaged in communicating with their legislators.
What I was most struck by during our office visits was how important it is to put a
positive face on atheism. Even today, publicly identifying as an atheist can lead to some strange looks or stranger conversations.
While I was waiting for a meeting in Sen. Ted Cruz's office, I struck up a conversation with a lobbyist from Texas, who took it upon herself to try to educate me on salvation.
She wasn't rude, but the clear implication was that I must be an atheist due to a lack of religious education. I responded by making it clear that my lack of belief did not stem from a place of ignorance. Because I remained respectful and thoughtful while presenting my case, my would-be converter came away with some pointed questions to consider and some assumptions to reevaluate.
Just showing up, representing atheists in a positive light and letting politicians know that we're politically active is huge. And you don't have to travel to D.C. to make that happen. Your state representatives have local offices. Your congressional representative has at least one office in your district and your senators most likely have offices throughout the state.
Sending emails is good. Calling is great. But if you're passionate about an issue, or just want to remind your representative that he or she has atheist constituents, then make an appointment and show up in person.