Representation Matters: Spotlight on State Senator Julie Mayfield
This is part of theHumanist.com’s monthly 2021 series highlighting openly nonreligious elected officials across the nation. There are now more than 80 elected officials who identify with the atheist and humanist community.
Prior to the 2016 election there were only 5 public nontheist state legislators but, because of our efforts, we have over 60 today—more than a 1,100% increase!
It is critical that our community connect, engage with the elected officials who represent our community and our values—you can see a list of these elected officials here.
State Senator Julie Mayfield
Representing North Carolina’s 49th District
“The Senate clerk had to look up how to swear in someone who didn’t want to use a Bible or other religious text; every legislator is given a bible with their name engraved on it at the beginning of every term (I requested NOT to get one)…”
State Senator Julie Mayfield is an attorney, community activist, and a leading advocate for the environment who has been serving the 49th district in Buncombe, North Carolina since her election in 2020.
Mayfield was born and raised in Atlanta and spent much of her childhood years exploring the North Carolina mountains. Her family has roots in Jackson County, NC, going back 150 years. Prior to serving in public office, Mayfield dedicated her career to advocacy for human rights and the environment. After graduating from Davidson College, she worked for prisoners’ rights and against the death penalty at Amnesty International USA. She continued this work at the Georgia Justice Project, where she served on the board for 11 years, helped create a job training program for people who were released from prison, and moved the organization to engage in policy advocacy. She also worked to help provide local families with food security at the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
After graduating from law school at Emory University, she became an environmental advocate, working for Kilpatrick Stockton. She eventually returned to Emory Law School to run its new environmental law clinic, where she represented nonprofits and community groups in legal cases. Mayfield then became vice president and general counsel at the Georgia Conservancy, a statewide environmental advocacy group, where she lobbied for the environment at the Georgia General Assembly and Department of Natural Resources.
In 2008, she became the executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, now MountainTrue, an organization dedicated to environmental justice and conservation. During her 13 years of leadership at MountainTrue, she helped protect North Carolina’s public lands from logging projects, developed an E. coli monitoring program, held energy companies accountable to clean up the pollution they put into the environment, and secured stronger environmental protections and millions of dollars in environmental projects in Western North Carolina through state legislative advocacy efforts. She also served on and chaired the board of the North Carolina Conservation Network.
In 2015, after serving for several years on the City’s Transit Commission and Multi-Modal Transportation Commission, Mayfield was elected to Asheville’s City Council, where she served for five years and became a leading voice for affordable housing, improving the transit system, transitioning to clean energy, and other environmental issues. She was elected to the State Senate in 2020.
Senator Mayfield currently serves on the Transportation Committee, State and Local Government Committee, Select Committee on Storm Related River Debris and Damage in North Carolina, and the Appropriations on Agriculture, Natural, and Economic Resources Committee.
In her free time, you can find her at the Saturday morning downtown farmer’s market, hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway, riding her bike around Asheville, paddling down the French Broad River, or enjoying herself at one of the many local restaurants and breweries in her district.
Sarah Levin: What motivated you to run for office?
State Senator Julie Mayfield: The motivation to run for Asheville City Council in 2015 was a strong desire to put my skills and experience to work to address the many challenges Asheville was facing at that time. I simply wanted to do more than I was able to do through my environmental nonprofit and serving on the City’s Transit Committee.
My motivation to run for State Senate came directly from my service on Council. In North Carolina, the legislature has much more power than local governments. In recent years, the General Assembly wielded that power like a weapon against Asheville—taking our airport, trying to take our water system, and redistricting our council elections to undermine local government. The legislature has also prevented all local governments from adopting living/minimum wage ordinances, stronger environmental protections, or equality ordinances to protect our LGBTQ neighbors. The legislature also limits how local governments can generate revenue, and Asheville simply doesn’t have the funds to meet the growing demands of our residents. I loved my time on Council and the ability to make change, but so much of the fight now is in the General Assembly. For Asheville to meet the needs of the people who live here, things need to change at the state level, and that’s what I hope to do.
Levin: What are your policy priorities and how does your nonreligious worldview impact your policy platform?
Mayfield: I have several policy priorities that are specific to Asheville and involve giving all local governments more authority over their budgets and policies, but I also have statewide priorities—everything from a $15 minimum wage; to banning single-use plastics, plastic bags, and Styrofoam; to increasing affordable housing; to allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses; to supporting the LGBTQ community; to expanding property tax exemptions to help prevent displacement of long-time residents. These are some of the bills I am a primary sponsor on, and there are many other bills I have co-sponsored that address a broad range of progressive issues. Sadly, it doesn’t matter much what we introduce, as a progressive agenda won’t go anywhere in our Republican-majority legislature. In light of that, I have pivoted to some long-term issues that I am working on with Republicans in the hope of having a bill ready in 2023.
Perhaps the only bill that has some direct relationship to my nonreligious worldview is the bill I introduced to reduce the separation period required for the state to recognize a divorce from 12 months to six, and even fewer if the divorce is uncontested and there are no children. This bill would also eliminate two claims that jilted spouses can bring against a third party in cases of adultery. We are in the minority of states that both require such a long separation period and provide these two claims. All of these laws are tied directly to a moral and religious preference for marriage over divorce, even when divorce is better for everyone involved.
Levin: Why was it important for you to be open about your nonreligious identity?
Mayfield: Honestly, I didn’t think about it very much. It never occurred to me to hide it or promote it. It first became an issue when I was sworn in for City Council and needed to find a document other than a bible to use. (I used a copy of the U.S. Constitution.) It was important for me NOT to use a bible, but virtually no one other than my family, the city clerk, and the judge were aware of that choice.
The same thing also occurred when I was sworn into the legislature. I then learned all the ways in which religion—and let’s be clear here that we are talking only about Christianity—is present in the legislature. Some examples: the Senate clerk had to look up how to swear in someone who didn’t want to use a bible or other religious text; every legislator is given a bible with their name engraved on it at the beginning of every term (I requested NOT to get one); there is a weekly chapel service; there is a prayer to open our daily legislative sessions. This opportunity to pray is open to anyone for any kind of prayer, but we only ever hear Christian prayers. I did give a non-religious prayer earlier this year, but the indirect feedback I received was that it was not received well by my Republican colleagues. My choice then became whether to continue regular non-religious prayers that might make it harder to build relationships or to step away from that fight. For now, I have chosen the latter, but I may pick it up again when I am better known by my colleagues. The two other senators who would also give non-Christian prayers have decided, like me, that injecting other religious traditions into the daily prayers is not worth the effort. I hope someday that changes, as there is strength in numbers.
Levin: How did voters respond (if at all) to your openness about your nonreligious identity?
Mayfield: It’s easy for me to be open about my nonreligious identity, coming from liberal Asheville. No one really cares, and it has never been an issue in my campaigns. Sadly, that is not true for some of my elected colleagues in more rural parts of the state.