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Legislative year in review: FFRF has success confronting political challenges head-on

In August, an FFRF contingent met with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, second from left, at Pocan’s district office in Madison, Wis. Meeting with Pocan were, from left, FFRF Director of Governmental Affairs Mark Dann, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor and FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel.

By Mark Dann

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been FFRF’s director of governmental affairs for only a few months and already we’ve done so much together. With your help, we’ve been able to build relationships on Capitol Hill, win legislative victories in a divided government, expand and strengthen alliances with allied organizations to advance legislation and build the FFRF supporter base. As we begin 2020, I want to share with you some of our accomplishments from last year and let you know about some of our strategic moves planned for this year.

Building relationships

In the past, we’ve had solid direct relationships with members of Congress on judicial nominations and secular invocations. Now, we’ve greatly expanded the depth and breadth of these relationships. In 2019, we had three members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus (Reps. Jared Huffman, Jamie Raskin and Mark Pocan) appear on FFRF’s TV show “Freethought Matters.” They gave us an in-depth and inside look at how they are working with us, how their secular values shape their decision making, and what they are up against in Congress.

At the FFRF convention in October, Rep. Pocan made headlines declaring that he is part of the 26 percent “of us in this country who don’t follow a specific religion.” (See page 16)

Pocan’s remarks were significant because the Congressional Freethought Caucus represents the breadth of the freethought community. Rep. Huffman, the caucus co-chair, does not believe in a higher power, and Rep. Pocan, who does not identify with a particular religion, has said that practicing a religion is not central to his life. This year, we hope to have more members of the caucus on “Freethought Matters.” We’re also working to have more members of Congress join the caucus to advance our pro-secular legislative agenda and make secularism a higher priority among members.

Legislative victories

Over the past several years, FFRF has been able to help stop the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which would have allowed churches to become tax-deductible political money-laundering operations. FFRF’s legal team even successfully sued the Trump administration on the same day he tried to sign an executive order undoing that rule.

This past year, one of our key legislative objectives was to make sure all Americans had access to a secular mutual-support recovery option, which is a constitutional right.

Religious 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are widely available and are often a default treatment option.

We are changing that. We want to expand recovery options for all Americans. Pending passage, we got an insertion into the federal budget that empowers federal agencies to work with secular mutual-support recovery providers. Getting a budget insertion may sound minor, but it is extremely difficult.

It takes a lot of shoe-leather campaigning and help from our excellent partners in the secular community, including the American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry and the Secular Coalition for America, plus secular recovery providers like SMART Recovery and LifeRing. This year, we hope to have multiple insertions across numerous appropriation bills.

We’re also working with our allies on Capitol Hill to see how we can use the appropriations process to send a strong signal that religious exemptions and a Christian Nationalist agenda will not be tolerated.

Plus, look for hearings that will shed light on the Trump administration’s actions to advance Christian Nationalism throughout the federal government and make religious exemptions a de facto policy of our government.

Stronger together

We can’t stand up to Christian Nationalists on our own and you can’t have too many friends in D.C. We’ve always had solid working relationships with numerous secular organizations. Continuing in that tradition, we’ve greatly expanded our network of allied partners through our legislative efforts, such as the Do No Harm Act, the No BAN Act and the Scientific Integrity Act.

The Do No Harm Act bans religious exemptions to laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights. We have been working with the ACLU, Interfaith Alliance, Human Rights Campaign, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Through our direct lobbying efforts, we’ve added 33 new co-sponsors and we hope there will be a hearing and legislative action next year.

To advance the No BAN Act, which bars the use of religion or nonreligion as restrictions on immigration, we’ve been working with the National Iranian American Council, National Immigration Law Center, and the ACLU, among others. With our collective efforts, we’ve added 64 new co-sponsors to the No BAN Act.

The Scientific Integrity Act helps to prevent political meddling in public scientific research. The bill has 230 bipartisan co-sponsors and has passed out of committee. We’re working with the Union of Concerned Scientists to get the bill to the House floor by the end of the year.

Building our support

I enjoyed meeting so many of you at the FFRF convention in Madison, Wis., in October. FFRF has maintained about 30,000 members for the past few years. We know that the nonreligious are now 26 percent of the adult U.S. population and there is tremendous opportunity for our membership to reflect the growing diversity of the freethought population. There are now more freethinkers than evangelical Protestants or Catholics. Can you imagine what we could do together if we had the same political clout as Catholics? One of the best things you can do to help us in D.C. is to help grow FFRF nationally.

I know the challenges facing our country and our secular values are immense. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. Yet this year, even with the tumultuous election, we will do what so many of our freethinking trailblazers have done before: Stay focused, lead with our values, act with compassion and move forward together.

Mark Dann is FFRF’s director of
governmental affairs and lives in
Washington, D.C.