Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

It pays to complain: Persistence pays off as representative signs bill

Vol. 36 No. 10 December 2019
Helen Wolfson                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

By Helen Wolfson

I had become frustrated trying to get U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., to co-sponsor H.R. 1450, the Do No Harm Act. This bill would prevent people from using their religion to harm others, and it seemed to me that Butterfield would want to support it.

I had begun calling his Washington, D.C., office in March. When I asked if Butterfield would co-sponsor the bill, I was told someone would get back to me. But, no one did. I called again in April. The person I needed to speak to was apparently out of the office, but I was assured that my concerns and my phone number would be passed on to him. Weeks passed. I heard nothing.

Luckily, FFRF Attorney Andrew L. Seidel was scheduled to appear in Raleigh on May 10 as part of his tour for his new book, The Founding Myth. I resolved to get to the event early so I could ask him for advice. I’m a shy person, so it speaks to my passion on this issue that I approached him and asked how to get the congressman’s office to take me seriously. He suggested I visit the local office, armed with a one-page fact sheet about the Do No Harm Act. He offered to have someone at FFRF review the fact sheet after I’d written it.

But the idea of visiting my representative’s office gave me butterflies. So, instead, I called the D.C. office again and complained that I’d called twice before and received no response. I was advised to submit my request in writing through the form on its web page, which I did. About two weeks later I got a generic email from Butterfield. He thanked me for taking the time to contact him about “this matter” and encouraged me to keep in touch on “this or other issues.” I might as well have written to him about property values on the moon!

At some point, even a shy person has had enough. But by now it was nearly June, and our summer was particularly busy, so I put the project on hold for a couple of months. When things settled down in August, I buckled down and created a one-page fact sheet that I sent off to Seidel for review. He put Butterfield’s office to shame by replying to me the very next day. To my delight, he gave me a thumbs up on my fact sheet.

The next week, I called the office in Durham, N.C., to set up a meeting. They referred me to a form on their web page, which was somewhat painful to navigate. But records show they acknowledged my request on Aug. 22. Later, someone called me, and we set up a meeting for Sept 11.

At that meeting, my husband and I met with two people who made it clear that they were not legislative staff, but simply a conduit for getting information to the legislative staff in D.C. Our ask was that Butterfield co-sponsor the legislation or let us know exactly why he wouldn’t. We left them each a copy of my fact sheet. (I also emailed it to them so they’d have working links to the references.) They said if we didn’t hear back in two or three weeks, we should ping them.

Three weeks later, I called the Durham office and said that I hadn’t heard anything yet. The person I spoke to said that he’d call Washington and inquire. He also suggested that I call Washington. The person who answered that call said that the person I needed to speak to was out. She offered to give him my name, phone number and email, but she refused to give me his name. I waited another week or so before I called the Durham office yet again. This time, the person promised to call the legislative assistant in D.C. She said if I didn’t hear from him the next day to call her back and she’d put me on hold and get him on the phone for me.

Luckily, she didn’t have to do that. On Oct. 29, while I was enjoying some frozen yogurt with my husband and a friend, my phone rang. It was Butterfield’s legislative assistant, who had called to tell me that he had spoken to the congressman and that they were starting the paperwork to make him a co-sponsor. By the morning of Oct. 31, his name showed up on the co-sponsor list.

It took a while, but the success was incredibly sweet. I’m confident that the face-to-face meeting was the turning point. Once I’d visited, the local people knew who I was. I’d been transformed from a disembodied voice on the phone into a person with a face! Rep. Butterfield has his own priorities, and this particular item was not among them. The key was to get his legislative staff in D.C. to put the issue in front of him — and the local staff became our allies and made that happen.

The thrill of achieving my goal of getting another cosponsor on the bill had me dancing around the outdoor table at the frozen yogurt place! At the time, that one co-sponsorship seemed like the most important thing to me. In retrospect, however, I realize that what’s equally important is that if I was able to raise awareness about this issue, I can do the same for other issues. At the rate the current administration is working to tear down the wall between state and church, I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities, unfortunately.

Both the local people and the legislative representative in D.C. encouraged me to stay in touch, and believe me, I intend to! Next time, I think I’ll start with a visit and a fact sheet.

FFRF Member Helen Wolfson lives in Durham, N.C.