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Convention speech — Rachel Laser: Nontheists could learn from LGBTQ movement

Rachel Laser, left, is presented with the Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award by benefactor Henry Zumach and FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. Zumach also holds up the check for $10,000, given to Laser on behalf of Americans United. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Photo by Ingrid Laas
Rachel Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She spoke at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Rachel Laser (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Photo by Chris Line
Rachel Laser talks with some FFRF members during the Freethought Hall open house event prior to the start of the convention on Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo by Chris Line)

This is an edited version of the speech Rachel Laser gave at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. The award was introduced by Henry Zumach, and FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor introduced Rachel.

Henry Zumach: Over the centuries and continuing into today, the greatest harm to societies has been imposed by those who hold the irrational beliefs of fundamentalist religious teachings. Those few individuals who have had the courage to confront these beliefs have been punished and persecuted. I believe that those few who speak out and take action deserve our greatest respect and admiration.

Because of this, I started the annual Henry H. Zumach Award for Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism. After giving this award to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2016, we worked out the details for FFRF to permanently administer the award going forward. I contributed $100,000 to the fund, and will contribute another $100,000, and my hope is that the amount of the annual $10,000 award will gradually increase in the future.

Now, here is Annie Laurie Gaylor to introduce this year’s winner.

Annie Laurie Gaylor: Thank you so much, Hank. It’s my pleasure to introduce Rachel Laser. She’s the new president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It’s the first time they’ve had a woman and the first time they’ve had a non-Christian as president. She is a lawyer and advocate, a strategist who’s dedicated her career to making our nation more inclusive. As a member of a religious minority group, raised as a Reform Jew, she understands personally how important it is for our nation to have equal protection under the law. She previously served as deputy director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. Previous to that, she directed the Culture Program at Third Way, a progressive think tank in D.C., where she launched Come Let Us Reason Together. It’s an initiative to mobilize evangelical Christians and liberals to work together on critical issues, such as women’s reproductive freedom and LGBTQ equality. She drafted the first common-ground abortion bill to be introduced jointly by the anti-abortion and pro-choice members of Congress. She served as senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, where she founded the Pharmacy Refusal Project to challenge pharmacists who refuse to fill women’s birth control prescriptions. She is a graduate of Harvard and the University of Chicago Law School and she serves on the national board of Pro-Choice America.

Thank you so much, Rachel, for lending your talents to separation of state and church and joining us today.

By Rachel Laser

On behalf of Americans United, our dedicated and talented staff back in Washington, D.C., our board of trustees, our volunteer leaders and our 300,000 supporters across the country, thank you so much for this award. It’s an honor for AU to receive the Henry H. Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award, and especially meaningful after getting to know Hank Zumach and Betty Hammond last night over dinner. It’s also an honor for me to be here with you as the first non-Christian and female leader of Americans United in our 73-year existence. I’m also thrilled to have the opportunity to share some thoughts with you about how to protect and defend our cherished principle of separation of religion and government during these precarious times. 

I thought I’d start by sharing a little bit more about myself. I’m Jewish, and grew up not so far away in Chicago, attending the oldest synagogue in the Midwest — KAM Isaiah Israel. I went to KAM’s “Sunday school” because my best friend started going and I asked my parents if I could go too. Even though we lived on the North Side of Chicago, my parents joined this Reform Jewish synagogue on the South Side because they loved the intellectual and progressive Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, and they liked the idea of being part of the nearby University of Chicago community.

Over the years, my parents made many friends at KAM, and by the time I graduated from law school, the temple offered my dad the role of temple president. He accepted.

Wanting to honor my dad and uncertain how, I bought him two things that he didn’t already have: a mezuzah to hang outside of his front door and a crocheted kippah to wear when he had to sit up on the bimah during services. My dad would have none of either. He asked me to please return them both to the temple gift shop. I did.

My dad is one of many Jewish atheists I know. And he is also one of the most principled, moral people I know. But that’s certainly not how the majority of the country see atheists.

Atheists discredited

I know I don’t have to tell you that atheists are, shall we say, out of favor in America. Just the other day one of our donors called to tell me that he was bequeathing us a very large gift. I asked him how he connects to our cause. He explained that he’s from the South, and when his dad died, he was the one his dad had designated as executor of the estate. His brothers and sisters didn’t like that, and they used his atheism to discredit him on the stand in court.

Recently, the attorney general of the United States of America blamed our country’s violence, mental illness, ongoing drug epidemic and “wreckage of the family” problems on “the growing ascendancy of secularism.”

You all might already know that Americans are less willing to elect an atheist for president than any other category of candidate. A poll conducted this summer by PRRI, a nonpartisan public opinion research firm, shows that nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of Americans say small businesses should be allowed to refuse to serve atheists if doing so is against their religious beliefs. This support has climbed nearly 10 percentage points since 2014 (15 percent) — just four years ago. Hmmm . . . I wonder what’s been going on these past four years?

Here is an oversimplified three-part answer. First, starting in 2014, white Christians ceased being the majority in America. Add to that the first black president, the rapid movement toward LGBTQ equality, the #MeToo movement, the fast rise of the religiously unaffiliated or the “Nones” and the fact that America will be majority black and brown by 2046. This all has engendered great fear among white Christians particularly vested in traditional power structures.

Second, President Trump, playing off of that fear, promised his white Christian voting base that he would “make America great again,” meaning he would restore its perceived loss of power.

And third, given Trump’s promise and follow-through, Trump’s base has never felt more emboldened to say or do anything and everything to preserve its power, which includes squashing especially those who are challenging it the most. And that’s why atheists get such special treatment.

What else is this kowtowing president and fearful group of Americans doing to preserve their power? Unapologetically doubling down on keeping American symbols, rituals and rhetoric religious and Christian. 

We witnessed the trifecta of Attorney General William Barr saying what he did about secularists, Trump declaring that Americans will “forever and always” believe in “the eternal glory of God” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bragging about how his Christianity informs his decision-making and then posting his “Being a Christian Leader” speech on the official State Department website.

Supreme Court misguided

But this crusade has reached far beyond the Trump-Pence administration. 

I’m sure that everyone here is familiar with the Supreme Court’s misguided decision earlier this year allowing the 40-foot towering Bladensburg cross to remain on public land in Maryland. I’m guessing you, too, agree with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s statement: “When a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content.” The court, however, ruled — seven justices to two — that the government may prominently display and endorse this Christian symbol because it’s a historical custom. In other words, it’s OK to violate the constitutional right to religious freedom for all Americans if we’ve always done it that way.

We have seen recent losses in lower federal courts, as well. In August, a federal appeals court ruled against our clients in Pennsylvania, allowing the state House of Representatives to bar atheists from giving invocations before the legislature. Citing Bladensburg, the court appealed to history, saying that legislative prayer invoking God is an American tradition.

And in Congress, we are seeing the same type of religious “traditions” remain intact. Rep. Jared Huffman, the only openly atheist member of our 535 members of Congress, recently lost his battle to make the “so help me God” part of the oath optional for witnesses testifying before his committee. All it took was Rep. Liz Cheney declaring that Democrats “really have become the party of Karl Marx” to make the Democrats back down and leave the rule in place. How absurd is it that any scientist testifying before the Committee on Natural Resources would be required to swear to God or be disqualified?

Back to the 1950s?

It’s as though we’re gearing up for another full-fledged 1950s moment — the decade when fear of communism led the government to infuse our culture with an unprecedented level of religiosity (including our national motto and Pledge of Allegiance). Or perhaps you think we’re already there.

Some people say it’s hopeless to challenge social norms around religion right now. They tell us not to devote time to cases like the Bladensburg cross and to stick to the more winnable and substantive battles, like preventing religious refusals in the realm of health care and employment.

Yes, those fights are critical and we certainly are engaging in them, but we cannot and must not give up on fighting for an inclusive baseline. The reason is simple: We will not achieve our country’s promise of true religious freedom until nontheists, the nonreligious and religious minorities are as accepted as Christians.

Our founders understood this profoundly, even back in the late 1700s. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, widely seen as the foundation for the religion clauses in the First Amendment of our Constitution, he said that its aim was to protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo,” and note, he included, “the infidel of every denomination.”

We know we cannot give up on the fight to change the baseline around religion to make it inclusive for all. The question is, how are we going to get there? Here’s what I know for sure: It’s not going to be easy. It’s not a five- or 10-year project. And it’s a hard question to answer.

Inspiration and lessons

But I would like to suggest that the marriage equality movement, which changed deeply embedded social norms around the institution of marriage in just one generation, offers us not just inspiration, but some excellent strategic lessons.

In 1988, when the General Social Survey first asked, only 11.6 percent of respondents said that they thought same-sex couples should have the right to marry. But by 2018, just 30 years later, the number of Americans who said same-sex couples should have the right to marry was at 68 percent. Social scientists say that it’s rare for public opinion to change this much, and this quickly, but it did.

How? Having worked on this issue as a straight ally throughout some of this critical period, three key strategies come to mind.

One is to have those who are not “the norm” come out. Public opinion research solidly demonstrates that knowing someone who is openly LGBTQ changes hearts and minds more than anything else. The LGBTQ equality movement did a phenomenal job of not only encouraging people to come out, but also creating a better climate in which to do so.

TV shows like “Will and Grace” and “Grey’s Anatomy” included LGBTQ characters, and celebrities from Ellen DeGeneres to George Michael to Melissa Etheridge started coming out (or being outed) right and left. Still, it took a huge number of brave LGBTQ people who were willing to put their relationships, family, livelihood, safety and even lives on the line to create this change.

Our equivalent is to keep encouraging non-Christians and the nonreligious, but particularly nontheists, to speak up about their religious identities (or nonreligious identities). We also need to ensure that celebrities are doing the same and popular culture is casting people in the role of loveable atheists and developing characters who don’t affiliate with any religious tradition.

FFRF continues to do excellent work with its “Out of the Closet” campaign, but we need to make a lot more noise. I challenge everyone here to share your own belief system with someone. But don’t just do so with like-minded people. The strategy here is to also tell your friends, family and communities who may have different beliefs.

The more buzz we create about the existence of nontheists and the nonreligious — and with the growing numbers of this segment of the population, more buzz should be doable — the more welcoming the environment is for others to come out, too. I want to acknowledge, however, that like with outing yourself as LGBTQ, it can be extremely difficult and even life-threatening to out yourself as a nontheist in certain parts of the country. For this reason, sadly, many of Americans United’s plaintiffs must still remain anonymous to stay safe. It takes courage and it takes risk.

A second key strategy of the marriage equality movement was to normalize not just being LGBTQ, but having romantic same-sex relationships. This is what I’ll nickname the “go for the jugular” strategy, because it went directly to one of the vulnerable spots for straight people — losing the privilege that attaches our opposite-sex relationships. Popular movies like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Call Me By Your Name” portrayed gay relationships in ways that were relatable and relatably sensual for straight people. TV shows began to include not just LGBTQ people, but gay and lesbian relationships.

I would argue that our “go for the jugular” equivalent is to go to where there is enormous privilege for religious people — the realm of moral superiority. Our efforts must engage popular culture, not just in having nontheist and nonreligious characters, but in conveying that nontheists and nonreligious people are as moral and principled as religious people are.

Some may be tempted to portray nontheists and the nonreligious as having better morals and principles than religious people. But, even if you think that’s true, the marriage equality success teaches it’s a bad idea.

A critical third strategy of the marriage equality movement was to speak to and enlist those considered the “norm” — so, in that case, opposite-sex married people. The way to opposite-sex married people’s hearts was not to tell them that same-sex marriages were better than their marriages, even if some thought they were. It was to tell them same-sex couples wanted to join their institution.

What did join mean to opposite-sex married people? Public opinion research revealed that opposite-sex married people associated marriage most with commitment, and hence a campaign was born around conveying that same-sex marriage was about commitment, too. Moreover, opposite-sex married couples — often parents or grandparents of LGBTQ people — were important spokespeople for moving the country toward full acceptance of marriage equality.

The equivalent for us is speaking to and enlisting religious leaders, but particularly Christians, who are still 65 percent of the country, in advocating for the right to be religious or nonreligious — without assigning moral superiority to either. We must speak to people of faith in a shared language and appeal to their commitment to religious freedom and the Constitution. 

Uniting communities

This third strategy is where Americans United is uniquely positioned to help. The truth is, there aren’t many places where the secular and faith communities intentionally come together. But since our founding, AU has been uniting these two communities around the shared goal of church-state separation. In fact, since I joined AU, I’ve noticed that our two most passionate groups of supporters are people who have a strong tie to a faith community and strong nontheists, because both groups deeply value their religious identities and understand how important separating religion and government is to them.

I was particularly happy when Jim Winkler, the president of the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical partnership of 38 Christian faith groups in the United States, became a trustee of Americans United. He joined one of the country’s pre-eminent atheist advocates, Eddie Tabash, in serving on our board.

Friends, let’s not lose hope. Someday we’re all going to have “clean” money in our pockets (you all know what I mean by that, right?), because the Constitution is on our side, because the demographics around religion in our country are changing, and because we are smart and strategic, committed and brave. 

Again, it’s an honor to accept this award on behalf of Americans United. We are so happy to have FFRF as partners in today’s unreal struggle for freedom and democracy.

Thank you.