Representation Matters: Spotlight on State Senator Megan Hunt

This is a recurring series highlighting openly nonreligious elected officials across the nation. Prior to the 2016 election, there were only 5 public nontheist state legislators. Due to the efforts of the Center for Freethought Equality, the political and advocacy arm of the American Humanist Association, we have identified over 60 state and federal legislators today.

It is critical that our community connect and engage with the elected officials who represent our community and our valuesyou can see a list of these elected officials here.

State Senator Megan Hunt

Representing Nebraska’s State Legislature District 8

“You have to run based on your record, your values, and your ideas. As a society, we need to reject the idea that we are going to center people’s religious beliefs in politics.”

Elected to the Nebraska Legislature in 2018, Senator Megan Hunt is a small business owner and sixth-generation Nebraskan with deep roots in community activism. She is the founder and Vice President of Safe Space Nebraska, a nonprofit working to end harassment and assault in nightlife establishments. Additionally, she is a trustee of the Business Ethics Alliance and she has served on the boards of Friends of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Friends of the Nebraska AIDS Project, and Omaha Area Youth Orchestras. She received her Bachelor’s in Intercultural Communication and German.

Hunt won the nonpartisan primary in May 2018 with 56 percent of the vote and went on to win the general election with 64 percent of the vote. Serving in the 107th session of the Nebraska Legislature, Senator Hunt has introduced over a dozen bills on topics ranging from codifying civil rights protections for LGBTQ Nebraskans, expanding eligibility for SNAP benefits, increasing the Tipped Minimum Wage, and ensuring sexual assault survivors have access to emergency contraception and medically accurate information.

Sarah Levin: What motivated you to run for office?

Senator Megan Hunt: The opportunity for public service through elective office opened for me in 2015, when my local public school district was considering a new comprehensive sex education curriculum to educate students about sexual health, consent, and healthy relationships. Omaha’s sex-ed curriculum hadn’t changed since 1971, which is horrible, but our efforts to bring about change were met with heavy and sometimes violent opposition.

I became deeply involved in this effort because I want kids to receive education informed by the best possible science and research, which they weren’t getting at that time. I became involved because I am an assault survivor, and I believe that if my peers and I had received this education, we would have grown up in a safer world. I also became involved because I am a mother, and I want our children to grow up supported in their own identities and be able to thrive without shame or judgment as they navigate relationships.

My county also had some of the highest rates of STDs and STIs in the nation, and I knew that an updated sex-ed curriculum was a simple and inexpensive way to change those deplorable and dangerous statistics. Long story short: our efforts worked. Our school district updated the curriculum. Our STD/STI rates are declining. And the opposition to the program has pretty much disappeared. When we had this win with the sex education update, I started to see my potential differently.

Levin: What are your policy priorities and how does your nonreligious worldview impact your policy platform?

Hunt: Throughout my career, I have prioritized my values, doing what I can to improve my community. I have built my reputation as an entrepreneur, activist, and elected official in Nebraska by fighting for what I believe will make a difference in my community. Guided by my values, I’ve embraced ideas and causes that will have a lasting impact on kids, students, working families, and those in need. As a single mother, I have prioritized the health and wellbeing of children; focusing on policies related to comprehensive sex education, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and increasing wages. My legislative priorities this year have focused more narrowly on issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as landlord-tenant issues, unemployment benefits for caregivers, expanding SNAP benefits, and eliminating the subminimum wage. I’ve worked to center vulnerable communities throughout my entire career and being a state legislator in the Nebraska Legislature empowers me to amplify the impact of my efforts.

The most important thing to me is that we elect people who are qualified for the work. And that’s not always an atheist or a nonbeliever. However, due to the way we have centered religious belief in our political process, it’s really difficult for anyone who isn’t in the majority to make their way into the system. I think that Nebraska’s body of elected officials skews a little bit more conservative than the population of our state as a whole. Polling shows that most people in my state support reproductive rights and abortion, immigration, and raising the minimum wage. But we haven’t elected people who are willing to bring that policy to fruition. So, I would not only challenge my colleagues who are elected. I would also challenge more people, different people, to run for office. The government will not get better until candidates get better. I would like to have Jewish colleagues, Muslim colleagues, more Black colleagues, more LGBTQ+ colleagues, colleagues of different abilities, colleagues of different national origins. Mentoring, speaking up about our intersections of difference, welcoming those who want to throw their hat in the ring, and yes, fundraising, is part of what we can do to help get us there.

Levin: Why was it important for you to be open about your nonreligious identity?

Hunt: Voters deserve to have an opportunity to get to know the candidates as they really are. When I present myself, I am not going to hide any part of myself. If I do, that takes the opportunity away from my voters and from Nebraskans to make an informed decision about who is going to represent them. I am who I am, and I don’t hide anything about myself. If the voters don’t like that, they don’t have to vote for me, but I believe it is vital to be transparent about who you are, especially as a candidate or elected official. You have to run based on your record, your values, and your ideas. As a society, we need to reject the idea that we are going to center people’s religious beliefs in politics. We should not contribute to that by making being a nonbeliever a big deal. I don’t see myself as a representative for atheists, for non-believers—I just try to do the best work I can to make sure people of all faiths, of all beliefs, are represented in our state.

Levin: How did voters respond (if at all) to your openness about your nonreligious identity?

Hunt: I think a lot of pushback in this area comes from a place of being afraid of people who are different from you. I will say that there are very, very few people in this group. Most individuals are completely accepting and kind. You do get a few people on the fringes who call or email my office or even make comments on the floor of the Legislature. As a whole, this does not happen often in my experience. Other non-believers should take hope in that.

Learn more about State Senator Megan Hunt