Atheist in Action: Interview with Jennifer Goulet

Endorsed by the Freethought Equality Fund PAC, Jennifer Goulet (who identifies as an atheist) ran for Washington’s State House as the 9th Legislative District State Representative—Position 1, which is a religiously conservative district.

Though Goulet was unsuccessful in unseating the Republican incumbent in the general election, her candidacy increased the visibility of the atheist community, and she continues her secular activism. Most recently, she led the fight against a resolution in Pasco, Washington, that would have expressed support for businesses that discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds. Can you describe your background and previous experience organizing for the secular movement? How did you draw on this experience to defeat the City of Pasco’s “Religious Freedom” Resolution?

Jennifer Goulet: My background includes being the cofounder and president of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Tri-City Freethinkers, a member of the board of directors of Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, vice chair of the local Democratic Party, and a recent candidate for State Representative, among other things.

There have been many opportunities to stand up for separation of church and state in my community over the years. Every time we (the Tri-City Freethinkers) become aware of the line being crossed, from public schools promoting religion to government bodies trying to further institutionalize religious practices, we’ve pushed back. I have organized everything from letter-writing campaigns, bombarding local and state officials with phone calls and emails, encouraging letters to the editor, and packing city halls and the county court room.

After we had an instance of a local business owner discriminating against a gay couple due to her “relationship with Jesus Christ,” which gained national attention and has become a drawn-out, high-profile, legal battle, I noticed a definite uptick in our need to “mobilize the troops.” The perception that they are victims of a secular war on religion has intensified some Christians’ attacks on local institutions and against individuals. So, I guess you could say that we defeated the latest attempt thanks to practice, practice, practice. How did you mobilize people to push back against this resolution? And what kind of messaging did you use to counter the seemingly innocuous “religious freedom” language that this and so many similar pieces of legislation use to push a discriminatory religious agenda while appearing harmless?

Goulet: I created a public Facebook event and shared it widely and encouraged others to share it as well. I also sent an email to the 200 plus people on our mailing list. Over the years my own activities and those of the Tri-City Freethinkers have made me fairly well known to local news outlets, so when they caught wind of the event on Facebook, I started getting calls from reporters and gave several interviews for TV and print media. That really spread the word!

I explained the history behind this particular resolution—how it has popped up in various forms again and again in our area, the national organization that’s behind the efforts to get such resolutions passed around the country, what the councilmembers’ and national organizations’ motivations and long-term goals are, and what the consequences would be if they succeed, both in the near and far term. I also summarized relevant state and federal laws, along with the role local government plays (or should play) in the issue. What has been your experience organizing in a conservative, heavily religious area? What kind of backlash, if any, do you face, and how do you deal with it?

Goulet: I think it’s been easier to organize in “the Bible Belt of Washington” because the nonreligious people in our community feel the weight of religious influence every single day in a way those in more diverse and secular cities like Seattle and Portland can’t identify with. When bombarded by religious messaging, imagery, speech, actions, and even hostility and discrimination in every area of your life, from grocery shopping to trying to coexist at work, people are more likely to take a stand when certain boundaries are crossed. We know that if we give an inch, they will take a mile, so to protect ourselves and others, we recognize we have to actively resist.

Most of the backlash we’ve experienced has been relatively benign, limited to verbal taunts or online trolling, and we can just ignore it. We’ve been making bigger waves over the last couple of years though, and we’re on the radar of local religious government officials as being meddlesome in their attempts to install theocracy. I take personal pride in the fact that the Tri-City Freethinkers made it onto the American Family Association’s “Bigotry Map” for our opposition to their bigotry.

In the current political climate, I am a bit concerned that things could get worse. What advice would you give to other secular individuals organizing in religiously conservative areas?

Goulet: My philosophy is “build it, and they will come.” If there isn’t already an atheist group in your community, consider starting one. You may think you’re the only atheist in your conservative, religious town. I thought that, too, but I guarantee you aren’t alone. When three of us first met for coffee nine years ago, I never dreamed we’d grow to more than 800 people or that we’d be so active, organized, and visible; yet here we are!

Start a Meetup page or Facebook group. Place an ad in the local paper or listing of events or even on Craigslist. To find affordable or free spaces to meet, libraries and community centers are indispensable resources. Make your group visible in the community by having a table at local events, decorate a float and have people march in parades, and so on.

Find out what skills people have and are willing to use. Ask people to volunteer or take on leadership roles, especially women and people from marginalized groups. They are less likely to volunteer on their own and are usually honored to be asked. I encourage any group to file as a nonprofit organization as soon as feasible to take advantage of the many benefits of that status. That’s probably the biggest hurdle you’ll face, so seek out a person who has the knowledge, or ability to learn how, to get through that process.

Consider including secular allies from liberal-leaning religious congregations in some of your activities. Form alliances with local organizations that serve people affected by religious bigotry, such as LGBTQ and women’s rights groups.

Use free, mass-emailing services like MailChimp to start a mailing list. Collect cell phone numbers so you can send out action alert texts. (Always get permission or set up a way people can opt in on their own.) I’ve found Facebook to be the most effective way to mobilize large groups of people on short notice, so this is a tool any organizer should definitely be using. When something happens in your community that needs strong opposition or support, you will already have the network in place and the people ready to be activated.