As the American Humanist Association’s legislative associate, I spend a lot of time working with other nontheistic organizations on Capitol Hill trying to ensure that public policy reflects humanist values. One of the organizations that regularly partners with the AHA is the Secular Coalition for America (SCA), which recently hired Larry Decker as their new executive director. In reaching out to Decker to ask him about some of the biggest issues facing the nontheistic and secular movements, I was able to learn more about what the SCA hopes to accomplish in the near future.
Q: As the new executive director of the SCA, what would you say to religious conservatives in government who claim that the United States is a Christian nation and that the Constitution and Bill of Rights do not explicitly guarantee the separation of church and state?
Larry Decker: They are just wrong, plain and simple. Any reasonable reading of the First Amendment will lead you to the conclusion that this country was founded on secular principles. People are free to practice their religion without interference by government and, inversely, people are free from being unduly influenced or restricted by religion. I am disgusted by the rhetoric of religious conservatives who would like to see their faith enshrined in our laws. Without separation of church and state, nontheists, the LGBT community, minority faiths, and other vulnerable groups are subjected to the whim of the religious majority. There is nothing more contrary to the founding principles of our country.
Q: How does the SCA plan to leverage the influence of state and local chapters to fight against legislation such as the numerous state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) and other bills that seek to privilege religious Americans at the expense of other communities?
Larry Decker: When it comes to RFRAs and similarly misnamed “religious freedom” bills, the impact of this kind of legislation is very intersectional. Advocacy organizations in the reproductive rights and LGBT movements are already working with us at the federal and state level. Our role is to educate our allies and the public that these laws, as they are typically written, essentially legalize discrimination for any religiously based reason, not just against women and the LGBT community. We will continue to build our network of activists and volunteers so that we can fight back attempts to pass this kind of legislation in other states, and we’re exploring our options for rolling back RFRAs in the twenty-one states where they have already been passed.
Q: As a Christian, how do you plan on reaching out to religious communities who support the idea of secularism but haven’t previously advocated on this issue?
Larry Decker: We need to ask organizations with religious affiliations to join us in this cause. I know a number of people who work for and with religiously affiliated organizations who share all the same values we do in the secular community. A strict separation of church and state is the only way to guarantee real religious freedom, and most people of faith understand this. Unfortunately, the vocal minority known as the religious right have created the impression that secular government and religious freedom are at odds. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need religious communities to stand with us when we say that secular values protect the religious freedom of people of all faiths and of none. To do that, we need to make a concerted effort to include them in our work. This is their fight, too.
Q: The SCA and the AHA have recently worked together to introduce a Darwin Day resolution in both the US House of Representatives and the Senate and have jointly co-sponsored congressional briefings in the past. What are some other ways that the SCA plans on working with nontheist and secular organizations to help increase our movement’s influence on the federal government?
Larry Decker: We’re always looking for new ways to work with our member organizations and other nontheist groups, many of which have an expertise in areas that we don’t. The Center for Inquiry (CFI), for example, has done outstanding work raising awareness about the plight of secular activists in Bangladesh. Following the murder of several Bangladeshi secular bloggers, we were invited to speak with the State Department about the issue and asked CFI to attend the meeting with us.
Similarly, many of our member organizations, including the AHA, have done fantastic work building and fostering nontheistic communities across the country. They bring their expertise in community building while we bring our expertise in political engagement. We’re currently working with the Secular Student Alliance to create resources college students can use to get informed about and involved in church/state separation advocacy, both on and off campus.
SCA is also promoting the work of the Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB). There is a troubling and pervasive stigma, even among some lawmakers, that nontheists don’t have a sense of right and wrong. Organizations like the Foundation Beyond Belief have put humanism into practice doing absolutely inspiring humanitarian work around the world. This is why we’re actively encouraging our supporters who are engaged in charitable work to join FBB’s Beyond Belief Network. Through this program, FBB not only connects teams of volunteers with grants and resources, they also give the stories of their good works a national platform.
Q: What is the SCA doing abroad to help ensure that all atheists, humanists, and nontheists, regardless of where they live, are able to speak about their religious views free from violent reprisals?
Larry Decker: Along with the Center for Inquiry and Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), we’ve been meeting with the State Department to educate them about the unique threats nonbelievers face around the world. Unlike other religious minorities, nonbelievers often lack organized communities to provide them support. This makes them especially vulnerable to attacks from religious fundamentalists. Our role is to educate lawmakers and candidates for elected office about how public policies impact these communities.
Unfortunately, in many cases abroad, nontheists who speak out openly are putting their lives at risk. We have to find a balance between elevating their voices and keeping them safe. EXMNA, for example, does a phenomenal job of balancing their community-building work, creating a space for ex-Muslims to meet likeminded people and express their views, while also protecting the anonymity of and providing support for their members, including in emergency cases.
With CFI and AHA we’ve been lobbying Congress to pass H. Res 290, which calls for the global repeal of blasphemy laws. If passed, the resolution would send a strong message affirming a congressional commitment to protecting religious freedom around the world, for people of all faiths and none. We’re also working with the Hindu American Foundation to secure cosponsors in the House for H. Res 396, which calls on the Bangladeshi government to uphold the promise it made as a signatory to the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights by protecting religious minorities, including secularists.
Q: The SCA will soon be holding their annual Lobby Day on Capitol Hill. What will be different about this year’s event? What meetings are you most excited for?
Larry Decker: For starters, this year we’re calling it “Advocacy Day,” but the biggest change is that this year’s event will be much bigger! Our Advocacy Day will be part of the 2016 Reason Rally, held on the Thursday and Friday before the rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Just like previous years, we’ll take attendees to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives and senators in person! We’re still finalizing the speakers and some of the details, but we’re already in the process of scheduling meetings with all 535 members of Congress.
Q: According to several national polls, the number of Americans without a religious affiliation is somewhere between 20-25 percent. With that number being so high, why do you think there are no open atheists or humanists in Congress?
Larry Decker: The lack of openly nontheistic members of Congress is a symptom of a larger societal problem. There are millions of nontheistic Americans who don’t feel comfortable being open about who they are because they fear discrimination and stigma. This past week I was in Arizona for the Secular Coalition for Arizona’s annual lobby day, and openly atheist State Representative Juan Mendez talked about “coming out” to his colleagues. He said that, with the exception of one state lawmaker, everyone else’s response has been 100 percent positive, which was heartening. We need more secular public officials to feel comfortable being open, just like Rep. Mendez.
Q: What is the one project or program run by the SCA that you want the secular movement to know more about?
Larry Decker: There are three, actually. First is our role as a partner in the Openly Secular campaign, which encourages people across this country to proudly stand up and say that they are openly secular. This is not specific just to the nontheist community, but also to the sixty million Americans who have no religious affiliation.
Second is Put Kids First, a legislative campaign to repeal nonmedical vaccine exemptions state by state. We’re leading the charge to make sure that neither personal beliefs nor junk science are ever allowed to jeopardize children’s safety or public health.
And finally, something I believe will have a profound impact in the 2016 elections is the resurrection of Secular Values Voter, a campaign to educate political candidates about the significant and rapidly growing secular voting bloc, the issues they care about, and the values for which they stand. To promote these values and protect our community and system of government, we must be active and vocal participants in the political process.