When Congress Interferes With Science, Who You Gonna Call? (Hint: It's not Ghostbusters)

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By Lori Lipman Brown

In 2007, Richard Dawkins' scarlet "A" campaign is making coming out as a nontheist easier for so many people than it had been just a few years ago. I like to hope that the existence of the Secular Coalition for America (http://www.secular.org) has also helped during the two years that the SCA has been lobbying Congress explicitly representing nontheists (atheists, humanists, naturalists, brights, rationalists, agnostics, and people claiming dozens of other personal identifiers with one thing in common – they do not rely on the existence of any god or gods.) I know it feels easier for me to talk about my godless beliefs now, than it did on my first day as the Director of the Secular Coalition for America, September 19, 2005, when I "outed" myself to a few million people on Fox's Big Story.

Two events convinced a diverse mix of nontheists to set aside their semantic divisions on what to call themselves to form an advocacy coalition to develop their political clout: 9/11 and the Terri Schiavo case. First, the attacks of September 11, 2001, which could have been used as a lesson in the danger of religious extremism, was instead used to claim that Christian extremism was the antidote. The second tipping point centers around a concerted effort to suppress decisions based on sound science in favor of narrow religious beliefs. This attack saw its way into the halls of Congress in its most offensive incarnation – the interference with Terri Schiavo's end of life medical decisions.

At the end of 2002, four organizations came together to form the Secular Coalition for America: Atheist Alliance International (http://www.atheistalliance.org), the Institute for Humanist Studies (http://www.humaniststudies.org), Internet Infidels (http://www.infidels.org), and the Secular Student Alliance (http://www.secularstudents.org). Prior to my hire date as the organization's first paid staff, the American Humanist Association ( http://www.americanhumanist.org) joined the coalition. In the past two years, the addition of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (http://www.ffrf.org), the Society for Humanistic Judaism (http://www.shj.org), and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (http://www.maaf.info) resulted in a doubling of its member organizations since the Secular Coalition for America's formation.

While even the SCA's founders wondered how the first Congressional lobbyist explicitly representing nontheists would be received by Congress members, their staffers, and theistic allies, the success of the organization has been tremendous. The SCA was welcomed into larger coalitions of church/state separation groups from day one. That is, both secular and religious church/state separation organizations, education groups, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender rights organizations, and others, welcomed our inclusion in those areas in which we overlap. It is extremely powerful when we walk in together to a lobby visit and hand a staffer business cards from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Interfaith Alliance, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Secular Coalition for America (a business card which reads across the middle, "Atheists. Humanists. Freethinkers. Americans."), all speaking in support of protecting our secular government by maintaining separation of church and state.

I have made hundreds of lobby visits and met half of the United States Senators face-to-face. No member of Congress or Congressional staff member has ever treated me with anything other than respect. Whether they are with us on the issues or not, they understand that I am a professional representing a constituency which deserves as much representation as any other.

Perhaps it is this success working in the spirit of cooperation across our own semantic divides as well as with theistic allies who respect our rights, that has led some of the most highly regarded scientists, authors, and activists to become members of the Secular Coalition for America's advisory board. The most recent addition to that body is author Salman Rushdie. I would say on this website, that the most prominent of our advisory board members is Richard Dawkins … but were I writing for a State University of New York website, I might instead list Massimo Pigliucci, or were I writing for an arts website, I might mention Julia Sweeney, or for legal scholars, I'd note Ellery Schempp… you get my drift; I encourage you to take a look at the extraordinary lineup of outstanding women and men who lend their advisory skills to the Secular Coalition for America.

Many of the church/state issues that the Secular Coalition for America lobbies on, do not revolve around science. These include the federal marriage amendment (which sought to impose a theological definition on the civil marriage contract), opposition to government funding of jamborees for the Boy Scouts of America (an organization which discriminates against nontheists), opposing religious discrimination in the hiring of Head Start teachers, and supporting Michael Newdow's attempt to require public schools to go back to the original language of the Pledge of Allegiance (before our "one nation indivisible" was divided, in 1954, along religious lines.)

Some of our lobbying touches tangentially on science. When we lobby against federal money supporting religious education, we combat the subsidizing of inaccurate science instruction.

Some of the issues we tackle are specifically defending science. We were pleased to be among eminent research, university, and medical organizations when we signed on to a letter to Congress seeking elimination of the limitations on stem cell lines which may be used in research by the National Institutes of Health. We work with numerous other organizations in supporting fact-based (rather than theology driven) curriculum in federally funded sex education programs.

The one issue that I thought would not appear before the U.S. Congress, was the push to teach creationism in public schools. These battles are constantly fought out in local school boards throughout the United States, not at the federal level. But earlier this month, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) included an earmark in a spending bill to fund a creationist group to help craft public school science curriculum. After much lobbying and activation of grassroots resources, Vitter withdrew the earmark. And that's where YOU come in.

When I walk into a Congress member's office, he or she often asks how many people I represent. If that member has already heard from a few hundred of our supporters regarding the issue at hand, it gives me tremendous credibility when I respond that there are approximately 30 million nontheists in the United States, and the SCA's member organizations boast a combined membership of over 25,000 individuals. When you sign up for our action alerts at http://www.secular.org/subscribe you will receive information and an easy-to-send sample e-mail regarding bills on which we need your voice. The SCA will not inundate you with e-mails. We spend most of our time working in committees to quietly transform legislation to prevent the need to activate our constituency on a floor vote.

And of course, we always appreciate financial support. Our work depends entirely on the financial support of our community. Given all that the Secular Coalition for America has accomplished with a staff of two people (a 100% increase since I was hired), imagine what we could do were our budget equal to that of the religious right.

Lori Lipman Brown, a lawyer, educator, and former Nevada State Senator, is currently the Director of the Secular Coalition for America whose mission is to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all. (http://www.secular.org)