This is part of The Humanist’s monthly series highlighting openly nonreligious elected officials across the nation. Because of the work of the Center for Freethought Equality, the political and advocacy arm of the American Humanist Association, there are now ninety elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels who identify with the atheist and humanist community serving in thirty states across the country. Join the Center for Freethought Equality to help politically empower the atheist and humanist community—membership is FREE!
The Center for Freethought Equality’s advances have been groundbreaking. Prior to the 2016 election, there were only five state legislators and no members of Congress who publicly identified with our community; because of its efforts, we have sixty state legislators today—a twelve-fold increase – and a member of Congress, Jared Huffman (CA-2), who publicly identify with our community! It is critical that our community connect and engage with the elected officials who represent us and our values—you can see a list of these elected officials here.
State Senator Kelda Roys
Senate District 26, Madison, Wisconsin
“My humanist philosophy is very much connected to the kind of world I want to see–one where no matter what zip code you’re born in, who your parents are, or how much money you make, you can still live a life that’s good and full of dignity, with every opportunity to use all of your talents.”
Senator Kelda Roys was first elected to the Wisconsin Assembly’s 81st district in 2008. When she was reelected in 2010, Senator Roys was also elected Democratic Caucus chair. In 2020, she was elected to the Wisconsin state Senate, where she currently serves on six committees, including the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform, and Ethics. Her legislative achievements include expanding health coverage to over 80,000 previously uninsured Wisconsinites as vice-chair of the Committee on Health and Healthcare Reform, and authoring the BPA Free Kids Act, a bill to stop the neurotoxin bisphenol A from being put in baby bottles.
A Madison native, Roys’ passion for public service was inspired by her social worker mother; her stepdad, an environmental lawyer; and her father, a retired state employee and prosecutor. She earned her law degree from the University of Wisconsin, where she worked at the Wisconsin Innocence Project, helping free wrongfully convicted people from prison. As an attorney, she represented non-profits and small businesses, and provided free legal services to Wisconsinites in need. She also worked to expand access to free legal services while serving on the State Bar’s committee.
Roys is the CEO and Founder of OpenHomes, a real estate brokerage that uses technology to help people sell and buy homes more easily and affordably. Frustrated with the high fees and inconsistent service of traditional brokerages, she founded the company while pregnant with her first child.
As Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin for four years, Senator Roys helped Wisconsin pass its first pro-choice law in three decades: the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act. She also worked on initiatives to reduce infant mortality, the need for abortion, and to decrease racial disparities in health care.
In addition to her professional work, Roys has been an active community leader for two decades, serving on many boards, including the Clean Lakes Alliance, ACLU of Wisconsin, Common Cause, Wisconsin Women’s Council, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Madison Repertory Theater, Public Interest Law Foundation, the Dane County Democratic Party’s Executive Board, and the Wisconsin State Bar Legal Services Committee.
Sarah Levin: What motivated you to run for office?
Kelda Roys: I wanted to make a difference! Wisconsin is a state with a great progressive tradition, but unfortunately, current politics doesn’t recognize that. We are often the breeding ground for some of the most right-wing, anti-democratic ideas out there. We’re one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. I ran for the state senate to rebuild a legislative majority and enact policies that will make our state a great place to live.
Levin: What are your policy priorities and how does your nonreligious worldview impact your policy platform?
Roys: I want our society to be a place of freedom, opportunity, and fairness. To me, those are the fundamental principles we should seek in our government. That means public education and supporting our most vulnerable residents. I’m a working parent of young kids and that’s quite an underrepresented group, which is why I think so little attention is paid to issues like paid family leave, affordable and accessible childcare, and other issues. My background as an attorney and a reproductive rights advocate means that I also spend a lot of time thinking about healthcare. I want to see universal healthcare, so everyone is covered.
My humanist philosophy is very much connected to the kind of world I want to see–one where no matter what zip code you’re born in, who your parents are, or how much money you make, you can still live a life that’s good and full of dignity, with every opportunity to use all of your talents. To me, that’s fundamental. Who wants to live in a society where people can’t unlock their full potential? What a terrible, oppressive place that would be. We should be building a state that has economic justice and social mobility, that really values people by giving them the freedom to succeed and pursue a life that’s meaningful to them.
Levin: Why was it important for you to be open about your nonreligious identity?
Roys: It is especially important right now because we’re at a dangerous moment. For decades, the most extreme right-wing fundamentalist elements have been relentlessly marching into politics and taking control, from the school board to the Supreme Court. So many of the freedoms I grew up believing were necessary for a free life are very likely going to be taken away. It starts with abortion rights and the ability of women to control their own bodies and their own lives, but it’s not going to end there. Once they overturn Roe, they’re going to outlaw abortion, they’re going to highly restrict birth control and criminalize some birth control methods, and they’re going to roll back equality and protections for LGBTQ+ Americans. They’re working hard to insert a very narrow fundamentalist Christian view into the law that should terrify everyone, including Christians. We don’t want to live in a theocracy where one particular strain of one religion is the dogma under which we all have to live under the threat of state force.
For me, it’s important to be honest about who I am and my beliefs, while pushing back really forcefully on this terribly un-American assault on our freedoms and our most fundamental rights. It’s literally the first line of the First Amendment that prohibits the establishment of a state religion. And the “nones” [those with no religious affiliation] are now the biggest religious category out there.
In a way, the right-wing success at capturing so many government policies has actually worked against them in our larger culture. We have a minoritarian government—the majority of people support policies that aren’t being enacted by those in power, everything from gun safety to addressing climate change to raising the minimum wage. Structurally, right-wing individuals see their power magnified through these undemocratic institutions like the U.S. Senate, the electoral college, and gerrymandered state legislatures. Add onto that voter suppression and campaign finance shenanigans and you can see how a vocal minority can really abrogate the rights of all the rest of us to simply live our lives free from interference. It’s a small “c” conservative position that we should all be free to the maximum extent until our freedoms are encroaching on someone else. They are all about small government until they’re in our bedrooms or our uteruses.
Levin: How did voters respond (if at all) to your openness about your nonreligious identity?
Roys: I haven’t heard anything negative from my constituents about it. I’m lucky to represent a great community, one of the most progressive areas of the country with tremendous diversity in every sense. It’s a highly educated constituency and they’re very attuned to politics. I have the luxury of saying exactly what I think and taking the time to unpack it. My constituents are interested in the details, and I can have a wonderful extended conversation with the people I’m lucky enough to represent. From that perspective, it’s been wonderful.
That said, like any outspoken woman on the internet or in politics, I’ve certainly gotten my share of hate mail. Everything from ridiculous attempts to denigrate me based on how I look, to violent and hateful rhetoric that, after a while, you get used to. It’s troubling to see that kind of rhetoric, not only part of our everyday life as public officials but something that’s even encouraged and modeled by the former president. That’s given a lot of people permission to air the most disgusting and hateful aspects of their personalities that, in prior times, they might have felt shame in exposing.
Because I’m in a privileged position in so many ways, it’s even more important that I speak out and be open about being an atheist and a secular humanist. Anyone who has that privilege can use it to help people understand that being non-religious is a pretty common thing. You almost certainly know some people who are not religious.
To learn more about Representative Sherry Frost