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FFRF’s Strategic Response Team is getting it done

By Andrew L. Seidel

The Strategic Response Team. Sure, it’s a cool name, but what does it actually do? The team is part of FFRF’s legal squad. We are Jacks and Jills of all trades, tasked with:

1. Lobbying, tracking, analyzing and educating about pending legislation.

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

3. Drafting statements, press releases, action alerts and articles for FFRF.

4. Working to stop imminent state/church violations.

FFRF launched the Strategic Response Team after its 2017 national convention when the somewhat informal “rapid response” crew was formally reorganized. Our inaugural year was a success. Here are some highlights:

We tracked 115 bills, more than 80 percent of which were negative in regard to state-church separation. Most notably, we opposed bills pushed by “Project Blitz,” a scheme aimed at codifying Christian nationalism into state statutes that features a wide variety of bad bills, including displaying “In God We Trust” in public schools. By mid-year, eight states had laws about posting “In God We Trust” in public schools, some adopted several years ago. This year, we’re already tracking similar bills in another nine states (Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota).

On the bright side, much of the legislation we opposed last year failed.    For instance, we opposed a bill in West Virginia requiring all schools, including elementary schools, to teach bible classes, and we opposed a bill in Mississippi forcing public school teachers to recite the Ten Commandments in class. Neither of those bills advanced.

Perhaps our biggest legislative victory was successfully defending the Johnson Amendment from sustained assault, an attack that continues this year.

Another important victory was convincing the Florida Constitutional Committee to retain the state’s No Aid Clause, which prohibits taxpayer funds from flowing to churches. A huge win, if not racy.

We couldn’t have done that without your help. The Strategic Response Team works to mobilize FFRF members, and since the last convention, you have made 29,672 connections with legislators on the 109 action alerts we sent out. That total number of connections is actually much

“In God We Trust” map

higher because that tally only includes calls and emails to federal legislators, not contacts with state and local officials or contacts by other means.

A lot of those connections were about Trump’s judicial nominees. Two stand out: Jeff Mateer and Brett Kavanaugh.

One of the Strategic Response Team’s biggest victories was preventing Mateer from receiving a lifetime appointment on the federal bench. Mateer worked at First Liberty Institute, the Christian anti-FFRF group, and would have been a disaster for state-church separation. To stop him, we authored the most comprehensive record of Mateer’s unfitness. Other groups used this report to build a narrative against Mateer, as did the media and members and staff on the Senate Judiciary Committee. We worked with journalists to publicize Mateer’s troubling ties to First Liberty Institute and the Texas attorney general. We even put together an effective, popular video compiling Mateer’s most egregious moments, urging viewers to oppose his confirmation. President Trump rescinded Mateer’s nomination in December.

We put in as much work to oppose Brett Kavanaugh, but without the success. The Strategic Response Team vetted every possible Trump Supreme Court nominee and drafted press releases and reports on each of the final four. This allowed FFRF to issue a statement on Kavanaugh less than two minutes after his name was announced. We also collaborated with other groups, including helping to draft a letter opposing Kavanaugh that other secular groups signed onto under the umbrella of the Secular Coalition for America and which Sen. Mazie Hirono introduced into the record. As part of that collaboration, FFRF attorneys reviewed more than 10,000 documents from Kavanaugh’s time in the Bush White House, uncovering some important memos that were lost in the later media narrative.

The Strategic Response Team also works to shape public opinion. We do this with FFRF statements, op-eds and articles. We drafted 44 statements on a variety of issues, from the new “religious freedom” division at the Department of Health and Human Services to the pope accusing abuse victims of “slandering” a bishop. We pulled together 50 press releases on legal and legislative issues and another 50 articles, op-eds, blogs and letters to the editor.

An article I wrote for ThinkProgress (“The White House bible study group that influenced Trump’s family separation policy”) shifted public discourse on both that policy and the bible study.

This is just a sample. The Strategic Response Team handled more than 450 separate projects last year. Most of them you’ll never hear about. By its nature, much of our work is behind the scenes and there’s a lot that we do for which we cannot be publicly credited. We can say that your interests are being well represented, including on Capitol Hill. So well, in fact, that we’re highly motivated and inspired by our work this past year to redouble our efforts. Andrew L. Seidel is an attorney and the director of FFRF’s Strategic Response Team.