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FFRF’s Strategic Response Team making waves

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By Andrew L. Seidel

FFRF’s Strategic Response Team’s third full year was a success, despite going fully virtual.

The SRT handles FFRF’s rapid response, legislation and lobbying work. Specifically, the team is tasked with:

• Federal lobbying; tracking, analyzing, and educating about pending legislation around the country; and mobilizing FFRF’s membership with action alerts.

• Responding to current events with statements, letters, and articles.

• Shaping public opinion with articles, editorials and letters to the editor.

• Working to stop imminent violations with legal letters.

The team has three full-time members: Andrew L. Seidel, Ryan Jayne and Mark Dann. Also attached to SRT are Annie Laurie Gaylor, communications team members Amit Pal and Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey and FFRF’s legal team. SRT has leveraged new resources (including powerful software) and alliances, to work more effectively on FFRF’s dual missions.

Here’s a look at what SRT accomplished in 2020.

In Congress

In 2019, SRT began crafting a legislative agenda for FFRF, and in 2020 it was implemented. A key part of the agenda was to make FFRF a vital partner in advancing the Congressional Freethought Caucus’ agenda. The caucus had numerous victories with FFRF’s urging and assistance such as:

• Effectively using the appropriations process to deny funding for regulations and entities that seek to discriminate using the guise of religious liberty.

• Opposing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights’ and its Christian Nationalist report.

• Hosting speakers such as Bonya Ahmed and Katherine Stewart.

• Supporting key pieces of legislation.

FFRF has been recognized by the caucus as one of the main thought leaders in the secular movement. Caucus members, including Reps. Jared Huffman, Jamie Raskin, Mark Pocan and Eleanor Holmes Norton have appeared on “Freethought Matters” and Freethought Radio.

Legislative wins

FFRF worked closely with the Congressional Freethought Caucus to endorse key pieces of legislation. The Do No Harm Act, our highest priority piece of legislation, which ensures that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can’t be used to discriminate, continues to move forward. The bill had a hearing in the House, and FFRF was a leading organization to obtain its 200-plus co-sponsors. The Do No Harm Act is primed to move in the next Congress.

Most of FFRF’s key bills have all passed out of the House or House committee and have been endorsed by the Caucus. We have seen progress on:

• The STOP FGM Act of 2020, which prohibits Female Genital Mutilialtion (FGM) on a minor, was unanimously passed by the House and the Senate in a voice vote.

• The Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, passed 236–173.

• The Scientific Integrity Act prevents political appointees from meddling in publicly funded scientific research. It passed, as part of the Heroes Act (COVID Relief Bill), 208–199.

• The No BAN Act eliminates the Muslim Ban (which could be turned against atheists abroad seeking a safe haven), limits presidential authority to suspend or restrict immigration and prohibits religious discrimination in immigration-related decisions. It passed 233–133.

• The Blasphemy Resolution, which calls on the president and the State Department to prioritize the global repeal of blasphemy laws, passed out of the House and the Senate.

Expanded our allies

Lobbying progress is impossible without allies. We need allies in Congress and in the broader progressive movement. We held 72 meetings with congressional offices, many dedicated to deepening our work with the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

We also strengthened our relationships with our secular partners and built new strategic relationships with civil rights and LGBTQ organizations. We joined the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is the primary coordinating body of civil and justice minded organizations.

We teamed up with a huge coalition to fight Amy Coney Barrett and other Christian Nationalists. A highlight of our work on judicial nominations was during the fight on Christian Nationalist Judge Justin Walker.

Tracked legislation

In 2019, SRT launched Quorum, powerful legislative software that helped us track legislation. We tracked 493 separate bills in 2020.

Of those bills, the most common state/church-adjacent bills were threats to LGBTQ rights. The next most common were bills that threatened reproductive rights, such as so-called “heartbeat” abortion bans that are unconstitutional, often deliberately so, and are passed with the hope that they will be challenged to give Christian Nationalist judges the chance to change overturn Roe v. Wade.

At both the federal and state level, we used 116 action alerts to mobilize FFRF members. More than 15,000 FFRF members have made more than 175,745 connections with legislators, including spending more than 27 hours on the phone on 1,181 calls with those offices. The total number is actually much higher because this only includes calls and emails to legislators made through our system, not those which people made on their own.

That overwhelming response helped us defeat many of these bad bills. In California and Wisconsin, we helped to stop bills that would have treated churches more favorably than secular nonprofits. And in Oklahoma and elsewhere, Project Blitz bills to plaster In God We Trust on government buildings, including classrooms, were soundly defeated.

At the state level, SRT focused on fighting Christian Nationalism, specifically Project Blitz, a nationwide campaign to insert Christian Nationalism into state law. Since its inception, we’ve tracked and opposed 123 Project Blitz bills and only 16 have been enacted.

Stopped violations

Often, FFRF will hear about a violation happening in the immediate future. SRT works to stop these violations before they occur. SRT also wades in when fast action can change the typical media narrative. SRT’s ordinary response time on these letters, from notification to mailing, is less than an hour.

Shaped public opinion

SRT published 39 op-eds, articles, blogs and letters to the editor.

Outlets that published FFRF pieces include Religion Dispatches, Friendly Atheist, the Wisconsin State Journal, Kentucky State Journal, The Cap Times (in Madison), the Salt Lake Tribune, the Miami Herald and Rewire News. Shaping public opinion is not just about writing op-eds and articles. SRT is also building relationships with reporters.

Responded to news

Since the last convention in 2019, we sent 58 statements for FFRF on a variety of issues from Paula White calling for all Satanic pregnancies to miscarry to the coronavirus and churches violating health regulations. Other statements include denouncing Trump’s Twitter assault on nonbelievers, protesting a worship service at White House that Pence attended, attacking nine new rules implemented by executive agencies, condemning Washington Rep. Matt Shea and his Christian Nationalist terrorism rhetoric, exposing Trump’s school prayer guidance, decrying Trump’s voucher plan, and condemning Trump’s State of the Union religious allusions.

SRT took the lead in opposing taxpayer money flowing to churches under the Paycheck Protection Program and when it became clear that even our congressional allies had no appetite to oppose the measure, we began to focus on transparency and accountability. The media responded and we were often the go-to organization for comment and information. We even broke a big PPP story, publishing a report and audio for two secretive phone calls the Trump administration held with evangelical supporters before the PPP process was public, helping to funnel money in their direction.

One of our op-eds for Religion Dispatches about churches, especially megachurches, abusing the taxpayer-funded Paycheck Protection Program went viral. The article, “Inevitable megachurch abuse of PPP funds is coming to light—private jet included,” had people seeing red as these megapreachers were pulling in the green.

Perhaps one of our biggest jobs was also one of our most fruitless and thankless: opposing Trump’s judicial nominees. From Barrett down to Walker, we put countless hours into this fight. We shifted public opinion and, we hope, have shown the need for judicial reform.

Increasingly, as with our work on PPP, we are looked at as an authority on issues of religion and the law, putting us on a level with the ACLU.

By the numbers

In 2020, SRT completed:

• 42 statements for FFRF on a variety of issues.

• 39 articles, op-eds, blogs and letters to the editor.

• 58 press releases for FFRF on legal and legislative issues.

• 52 rapid response letters written to prevent impending violations.

• Comments on 20 formal rule changes the Trump administration proposed.

• 72 meetings with legislators on Capitol Hill.

• 121 action alerts that connected FFRF supporters and legislators 175,745 times and nearly 1,200 calls.

• 493 bills analyzed and tracked.

• Nearly 800 separate SRT projects, a 60 percent increase over 2019.

Andrew L. Seidel is director of strategic response for FFRF.