2008 Year-End Report on the 110th Congress
There were high hopes going into the second half of the 110th Congress that 2008 would be the year when legislators would reverse some of the Bush policies that most infringe upon the separation of church and state. Sadly, with both political parties consumed with the presidential election, Congressional legislative action was particularly lackluster during the second half of the year. Nonetheless, the Secular Coalition was still able to make progress on the issues most important to our constituency.
Director Lori Lipman Brown and Legislative Associate Sasha Bartolf went on hundreds of lobby visits, including face-to-face meetings with more than fifty Senators. We also enjoyed having many of our Action Alert recipients come to Washington to accompany us as we lobbied their representatives. We were particularly thrilled at the turnout for our 2nd Annual Lobby Day on June 9th, when we set up visits for supporters to talk about the problems of proselytizing in the military and D.C. vouchers for religious schools with their elected officials and staff.
American Religious History Week (H. R. 888)
Despite having over eighty co-sponsors, this resolution was stopped from moving forward thanks to a strong lobbying effort by the Secular Coalition for America. While we normally don't take a position on resolutions, this bill promoted a false and distorted "Christian nation" reinterpretation of American history. This resolution will likely re-appear in the next Congress; however, we are confident that our strong stand against it will discourage sponsors and prevent the bill from being voted out of committee.
Nomination of Richard Honaker to the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming
Mr. Honaker, a former Wyoming state legislator, was nominated for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court despite stating in several speeches that the U.S. Constitution created a Christian nation. Specifically, he claimed that "As Americans, if taught accurately, history can teach us that the greatest American patriots and leaders were Christians, and that there is indeed a Christian basis for American institutions of law, government, and business." The Secular Coalition aggressively lobbied the Senate Judiciary Committee where his nomination was being considered; thanks to our strong opposition and that of our allies, Honaker is no longer being considered for the position.
Abstinence-Only Sex Education
The Secular Coalition for America and our allies lobbied throughout the year to remove funding for Community-Based Abstinence Education programs in the FY2009 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill. While complete elimination was not possible, we were successful in convincing appropriators to cut the funds for abstinence-only sex education by 25%. The Secular Coalition firmly believes that medical science, not religious ideology, should direct our sex education policy.
D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program
The Secular Coalition for America, along with more than 60 other organizations comprising the National Coalition for Public Education, worked to stop legislative efforts to continue the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. This is a federal voucher program that allows D.C. public school students to use taxpayer funds to attend private religious schools. Unfortunately, election year politics combined with support from some misguided local D.C. officials allowed this program to receive funding for an additional year. However, the Coalition was successful in ensuring that the program would no longer be able to receive funding in the future unless Congress officially votes to reauthorize this program. Reauthorization would require holding hearings on the efficacy and constitutionality of the program, and reviewing studies that show the extensive problems with the program. With so many anti-voucher proponents in the House and Senate already, we are very optimistic that this program will not be reauthorized in the new 111th Congress.
Ten Commandments Resolution (S. Res. 483)
The Secular Coalition successfully defeated efforts by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and other members of the Religious Right to pass a resolution stating that the Ten Commandments are "an elemental source for American law." If passed, this resolution would have provided an additional rationale for religionists to post the commandments in our courthouses, schools and other public buildings.
Workplace Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1431)
The Workplace Religious Freedom Act would have encouraged employees to ignore employer policies that prohibit religious proselytizing in the workplace, religious condemnation of co-workers, and inserting religion into secular workplace practices and activities. The courts have consistently ruled in favor of employers' rights to prohibit religious harassment in the workplace, but this bill would have put these precedents into question. The Secular Coalition worked with other groups to ensure that this legislation never moved out of the House Committee where it was assigned.
Boy Scout Commemorative Coin Bill (H.R. 5872)
On May 21, 2008, the House of Representatives passed legislation creating a commemorative coin for the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that explicitly discriminates against nontheists (as well as gays) in admission, employment and volunteer opportunities. Action by the Secular Coalition, along with the American Humanist Association, Scouting for All, and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations successfully delayed the bill from being considered by the Senate for over four months.
Unexpectedly, while the Senate was waiting for economic bailout legislation from the House, the Senate leadership decided to fast-track several bills that were in committee through a procedural maneuver that allowed the bills to go straight to the Senate floor without a recorded vote. This maneuver thwarted our lobbying efforts to hold up the bill in the committee where we had been focusing our efforts. Although we knew that during an election year no Senator would "risk" voting against funding for the Boy Scouts despite their discriminatory practices, we did take satisfaction from knowing that we educated many Senators and staffers, most of whom did not know about the Boy Scouts' bigoted policies. Perhaps this educational effort will prevent future federal aid to this organization.
Health and Human Services "Conscience Clause" Regulations
UPDATE: On December 17, 2008 the Bush Administration decided to implement this regulation.
Secular Coalition Action Alert recipients, along with our coalition partners' supporters, sent over 200,000 comments to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) protesting the proposed "conscience clause" regulations which would allow anyone working or volunteering in any federally funded medical or research facility to refuse to serve patients or conduct research that violated their "conscience." In addition to the individual comments that were submitted, comments opposing the regulations were provided by 150 members of Congress, nine governors, sixteen state attorneys general, and a large number of associations and organizations, including the Secular Coalition for America. While HHS is expected to enact these regulations, once in office, President Obama could reverse them. There are also Congressional remedies available to stop these outrageous regulations from being implemented. If HHS chooses to move forward with these regulations, we will aggressively work with the Obama Administration and Congress to have them overturned.
Treatment of Nontheists in the U.S. Military
At a November 10th press conference, the Secular Coalition for America unveiled its recommendations for resolving the pervasive climate of intolerance towards nontheists and others who do not follow born-again Christian beliefs in today's military. The recommendations include requiring the Department of Defense to improve chaplain training, conduct a survey to determine the extent of the problem, create a commission to ensure compliance with constitutional requirements, and develop improved channels for reporting religious discrimination. The Secular Coalition sent the proposal to President-elect Obama and we look forward to working with his administration to address these issues.
Secular Coalition in the Media
In the past year, the following major outlets have published articles quoting Director Lori Lipman Brown or President Herb Silverman and/or discussing the activities of the Secular Coalition for America: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Nation, Stars and Stripes, Detroit Free Press, Religion News Service, The American Prospect, Washington Jewish Week, Roll Call, Secular Nation, Charleston City Paper, The Post and Courier Charleston.net and the American Association of Justice. Associate Director Ron Millar was quoted in The Huffington Post and The Denver Post.
Editorials and opinion pieces written by Lori Lipman Brown or Herb Silverman were published in the following publications: The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, WashingtonPost.com On Faith, The Hill, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Secular Nation, and Humanistic Judaism. In August, Lori Lipman Brown was also featured on the highly-rated satirical cable news program, The Colbert Report.
The Secular Coalition was also featured in many smaller news publications, Internet news outlets, blogs, podcasts, and local radio programs throughout the year. A complete list of our coverage is located at http://www.secular.org/media/.
Secular Coalition on the Road
The Secular Coalition for America had an incredibly busy schedule of outreach in 2008. Director Lori Lipman Brown spoke to over fifty local and regional groups in eighteen different states. She was also featured at several organizations' national conferences, including the Society for Humanistic Judaism, American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance International and Dragon*Con. President Herb Silverman spoke to several organizations around the nation on topics related to secular political activism. He also presented at the University of Virginia Law School about his successful campaign to overturn South Carolina's religious test for public office and participated on a George Washington University panel about Faith and Politics.
Secular Coalition Introduces Election Year Resources Web Site
In September the Secular Coalition launched a Secular Values Voter™ Web site where information on the policy positions of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates and their running mates were available to Secular Coalition supporters.
In addition to providing specific instructions for individuals and groups around the country to publicize ideas important to Secular Values Voters™, the site also featured polls and a YouTube video contest. Secular Values Voter™ buttons, yard signs, and t-shirts were made available for purchase to build solidarity among the secular community.
Our Coalition and Staff Grow
On April 20, 2008, the American Ethical Union (AEU) voted to become the ninth member organization of the Secular Coalition for America. The AEU is the umbrella organization for ethical culture societies across the United States. The purpose of the AEU is, in part, to promote "the love and practice of right living in all the relations of life ..., and to advance the moral growth of humanity through study, social action and spiritual consecration." Ethical societies are nontheistic and humanistic in emphasis.
"The American Ethical Union is a wonderful and welcome addition to our coalition," said Director Lori Lipman Brown. "Their commitment to ethical action and programs brings reason-based ethics to families and the general public. I am confident that the American Ethical Union will be a powerful and positive force within our coalition. We are honored to count them as a partner."
On March 31, 2008, the Secular Coalition was pleased to welcome Sasha Bartolf to its staff as a legislative associate. Sasha comes to the Coalition from Congressional Quarterly, where she contributed to CQPolitics.com, Politifact.com, CQ Weekly, and CQ Healthbeat as a writer and researcher. Previously, she was a lobbyist and public policy writer at the government affairs firm, Impact NJ. At the Secular Coalition for America, her responsibilities are Congressional lobbying, grassroots advocacy and research.
The Secular Coalition also hired Mary Bellamy as a part-time program assistant. Mary had been an active volunteer with the Secular Coalition since 2007. She graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a securities lawyer at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and for the Investment Company Institute. She has also edited a journal on law and investment management for the Villanova University School of Law.
Secular Coalition Looks Forward to New Opportunities in 2009
The new Obama Administration and 111th Congress provide opportunities to reverse the theocratic policies imposed during the Bush years. However, because many of these policies have been institutionalized, we are uncertain if there is sufficient political motivation or courage to take on the task of reversing them. The Secular Coalition for America and our issue allies will be working tirelessly to end the following:
- Coercive proselytizing and the culture of religious intolerance that exists in the military.
- The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that allows vouchers to be used for private religious schools.
- Funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education.
- Religious discrimination in the hiring practices of faith-based initiative programs.
- The ban on embryonic stem-cell research.
- Restrictions on access to emergency contraception and birth control in hospitals and pharmacies.
- The global gag rule that requires all entities that receive federal funding to refrain from performing or promoting abortion services in other countries.
- Judicial nominations of individuals who do not understand the importance of the separation of church and state.
The new 111th Congress and the Obama Administration also provide the Secular Coalition for America the welcome opportunity to solicit positive legislation during 2009, including Congressional acknowledgement of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the importance of the theory of evolution, and the role of science in advancing our society.