Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of participating in the Secular Coalition for America’s (SCA) annual lobby day. Approximately ninety attendees flew in from across the United States to give voice to the concerns of America’s ever-increasing nonreligious population.
Before the attendees were dispatched to meet with their representatives, I delivered a presentation on “how to talk to Congress.” Congress is a peculiar place with an idiosyncratic culture, so when we’re advocating for the separation of church and state, it’s helpful to understand the perspective of a congressional staffer, a role I previously held in the office of Senator Cory Booker.
Despite some technical difficulties—the TV monitor in our assigned room wasn’t working, so I had to forgo the PowerPoint visual aid that usually accompanies my remarks—my presentation seemed to be well-received.
After the presentation, attendees spent the next forty-five minutes or so rehearsing their meetings with staff.
Many attendees had joined in previous lobby days. However, there were some newcomers who were apprehensive about meeting with a congressional staffer for the first time. I accompanied a few of them to meetings with members of Congress’s Maryland delegation. They did great! It was gratifying to help people make their voices heard in Congress where all too often, the concerns of regular constituents take a backseat to powerful special interests.
We advocated for congressional action on two issues. The first issue was access to secular, evidence-based addiction recovery support groups. The ever-ubiquitous “twelve step” addiction recovery support groups (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous) may be helpful for some people, but their pervasively religious content renders them inappropriate and ineffective for most people who are nonreligious. Secular alternatives, such as SMART Recovery, LifeRing, and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), provide a potentially lifesaving service, but they lack the resources and name recognition of twelve step groups. Lobby Day attendees called upon Congress to provide funding for these groups through federal grant programs that address substance abuse and the opioid epidemic.
The second issue was global blasphemy laws, which criminalize “insulting” religion in more than sixty countries around the world. In twelve of these countries, blasphemy is punishable by death. U.S. representative Jamie Raskin, cofounder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, has reintroduced a bipartisan resolution (H. Res. 512) calling on the State Department to work toward repeal of these laws in every country where they exist. It’s an incredibly important issue, but unfortunately, it’s one that has gone underrecognized and underaddressed. H. Res. 512 is a first step toward advancing true freedom of inquiry, and freedom from religion, for people overseas who are suffering from religious oppression. In closing, I want to extend a big thank you to the staff at SCA who worked so hard with limited resources to pull off a successful event. Here’s to many more collaborations to come.