Advancing Humanism in a Red State

This article is adapted from a discussion hosted at the American Humanist Association’s 80th Annual Conference in July 2021. Rachel Deitch, AHA’s policy and social justice director, spoke with Megan Hunt, Nebraska State Senator and one of over 80 elected officials, at all levels of government, that identify with the humanist and atheist community.

RACHEL DEITCH: I’m sitting down with State Senator Megan Hunt from Nebraska, representing the folks in the great city of Omaha (one of my personal favorites). She is an openly humanist atheist member of the State Senate. Thank you so much, Megan, for being with us this morning.

When I found out that we were having this conversation, I immediately started doing my research and, of course, the first place I went was your Twitter feed. And you did not disappoint.

Recently, you tweeted a thread of session highlights. These include ending solitary confinement for pregnant and developmentally disabled people, as well as those living with severe mental illness. It included an update to Nebraska building energy codes. It included wonderful photos of you speaking to a Capitol filled to the brim with abortion rights activists and so much more. Now, we are here to talk about how you get things done as a progressive elected official in a red state. Let’s start there. How did you and others get some of these wins this session?

SENATOR HUNT: Honestly, this is the topic that I’m most obsessed with. I feel really lucky to be able to live in Nebraska because we have a lot of policies that make it difficult or more unwelcoming for people in historically excluded groups, whether that’s nonbelievers or people of color or LGBTQ people in that community or the disabled, whatever it is.

And in Nebraska, we have a very conservative state legislature. We have a very conservative governor. And so, any time that we can get these progressive wins, or even if you don’t want to call it progressive, just anything that acknowledges the existence of science, the importance of research, and the importance of having evidence for the policies that we pass, it’s honestly intoxicating.

During our most recent legislative session, we were able to pass legislation that provided tangible relief to Nebraskans from COVID-19, especially those who have faced additional hardships with being out of work. I’m really proud that I passed my priority bill this year, which allows people who leave work to care for a sick family member to apply for unemployment. And this is the first time that we have had this in Nebraska. I introduced the bill with 25 co-sponsors from across the political spectrum.

In Nebraska, we have the only nonpartisan legislature in the country, with just 49 members. Instead of a house and a Senate, we just have the legislature. And there are no official party lines. We don’t have a majority or minority leader. We don’t have any caucuses. It’s just the 49 of us representing our districts, getting beers, getting lunch, hanging out, fighting, laughing, arguing and figuring out how we are going to do something to actually help people in the state. What I have found is that Nebraska is kind of a special laboratory, if you will, for cross-partisan cooperation because we don’t have any party leadership. I’m not going to get in trouble if I go have lunch with 12 Republicans or I’m not going to have any kind of consequences if I make a compromise with a moderate in order to get something that I want for my people. That’s a culture that I wish other places in the country would emulate.

DEITCH: I think you certainly are a unique microcosm in the country. When I speak to state legislators from other states, I don’t think they are able to come to their work as open to the folks that they are working with who maybe are on the other side of the aisle.

I have heard you say that you believe in a leadership and cooperation that doesn’t look at things in partisan terms, that doesn’t operate in either/or, left or right. You just mentioned building bridges, building those relationships, and starting small. Can you walk us through a specific piece of policy that demonstrates how you did that, perhaps the farm-to-school network that you championed?

HUNT: In Nebraska, I can’t pass anything without conservatives because we don’t have enough votes. Everything that we are able to accomplish, we have to do across party lines. This year I worked with a rural State Senator named Tom Brandt. He’s wonderful. He sits next to me in the chamber and he’s a great guy. He’s a very smart, thoughtful man, a farmer, a father. He cares about everybody’s well-being. In his community, he has a lot of other farmers that are really concerned about how they are going to keep their family farms and not have to sell to big factory farms. Because people in Nebraska are losing their farms and their ranches. And what Senator Brandt found out is that when people have their farm and can do a farm-to-table thing with restaurants, that’s been a way for them to keep their farms going, by selling produce to restaurants. Several years ago, we passed a law that makes it easier for farms to do that without going through a lot of red tape, by offering reciprocity. So, if your produce is good enough to sell to a grocery store, we are going to assume it’s good enough for a restaurant, too. We’re also going to extend the program to schools, because it makes no sense that we live in the nation’s breadbasket, but we still have children who suffer from food insecurity. So, Senator Brant and I worked on a bill to create a farm-to-school pipeline and now schools are getting fresh produce, fresh meat, fresh food every day from our farms here in Nebraska. This is something that Republicans thought was great, Democrats thought was great and he and I were able to work on that and build that together.

DEITCH: You’ve talked a lot about working across the aisle. I want to pivot now to an issue that is highly contested around the country right now: voting rights. States are reacting to and capitalizing on the false rhetoric that Trump has spouted about fraud in the presidential election and used it to pass partisan, racist voting restrictions. There was some movement on this issue in Nebraska recently, with a petition that was filed to add a constitutional amendment to the 2022 ballot, which would require voter identification. And previously, you have had colleagues in the Senate introduce voter ID bills and bills that would change Nebraska’s electoral college makeup. And you fought back. You have introduced resolutions affirming your values very clearly about what should and should not be acceptable in Nebraska regarding access to the ballot box. How can voting rights advocates on the ground push back in their states?

HUNT: That’s a tough question. I will be honest with you. I’m frankly not super-optimistic about this fight. Doesn’t mean we can’t win it. I tend to be a little pessimistic anyway. But in Nebraska, we are probably going to have a voter ID ballot question, because I have no doubt they can get the signatures to get it on the ballot. And it will probably pass once it gets on the ballot. I’ve talked to so many people who think it makes sense. The gut check is, “Well, why don’t people just get an ID? I have an ID. Why is it so hard to get an ID?” But they don’t realize that in parts of Omaha that are majority Black and Hispanic, they don’t have transportation to get to the DMV. They have to go out to another part of the city that doesn’t have transportation. That’s an issue. We talk about people who are elderly, and a lot of times you hear very common stories of, “I don’t have my birth certificate or the name they put on my birth certificate was misspelled and so I had to get a different ID and then I don’t have it anymore.” It’s really not that easy for people, actually.

I think that if one person is not able to vote because of this suppressive law, then that is a huge miscarriage of justice and democracy. That is the frame that we need to be thinking about this in: communicating about this to supporters of voter ID and other voter suppression issues. Advocates of voter ID say things like, “If there’s one fraudulent ballot, then that’s a fraudulent election.” But think about it the other way. What if one person can’t vote? Why isn’t that a fraudulent election? We have races in Omaha, and this happens all over the country, for offices like school council in which a candidate wins by 30 votes. Those votes matter, especially at the local level when we are talking about things like curriculum for students. We are having a lot of battles in schools right now around health education and religious education. And if it’s 30 votes, how can you say that if about 30 people weren’t able to go to the polls who are eligible to vote because they don’t have an ID, that wasn’t a fraudulent election?

DEITCH: I think we need to come to this work with realism. That’s the only way we are going to be successful. If we walk around thinking this is going to be easy or it’s going to be done in the next few years, we will get burned out way too fast. We won’t get anything done. We won’t build strong, long-lasting coalitions. So, let’s talk about something you didn’t have a lot of success with if we look at it on paper. You introduced legislation to ban conversion therapy and you held hearings on the subject, but it was unsuccessful at the state level. But the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, did enact a ban on conversion therapy fairly quickly afterwards. So there is hope that if something can’t happen in one space, it still provides kindling for it to work somewhere else. Can you speak about that effort and where you see opportunities for local governments to lead?

HUNT: This is a really, really important point, because if we feel like we have had a failure of policy or some effort on the state level or the national level, you have to think about the impact that work had that trickles down. The more local a government is, the more responsive it is to the community. And the city of Lincoln is leading now on LGBTQ equity and showing the rest of the state that when we pass these policies, it actually helps the economy. It attracts high-skill workers. It attracts the kind of people we want to have in our communities, and those are people who believe in justice and equity. More people are willing to speak up in their communities than on the state level. That’s something we saw in action in cities after we started working on conversion therapy.

For those of you who don’t know, conversion therapy is a totally debunked practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity by basically traumatizing it out of them. Sometimes they will show you homosexual imagery and then give you electric shocks, so you start to associate that imagery with negative emotions, for instance. Of course, it doesn’t work. It just leads to more feelings of depression and people who experience conversion therapy are more likely to attempt suicide. It’s been banned in something like twenty-three states now. When I first introduced the bill, it had only been banned in thirteen states. So, the movement is really growing. I would really like Nebraska to be next. But all the work that we do at the state level on this, even if it’s not successful year to year, it’s inspiring the lawmakers at the local level in Omaha, in Lincoln, in Grand Island, in Carney, all over the state, local councils are talking about banning it. This is going to put pressure on state officials to bring in that change themselves. And the same thing can happen on the large scale. When states work on issues, sometimes it puts more pressure on Congress and that’s very real, too. So don’t ever feel like something is a loss just because the law doesn’t pass or the thing doesn’t happen, because it really does have these branching out effects on people that influences them.

Another quick example I can share is about reproductive justice. I work on a lot of proactive abortion bills, but I’m also often in a defensive position trying to stop a bad bill in Nebraska. For example, we had one bad bill that passed, but I made the fight so hard for them. I didn’t let them get away with it easily. The next year we didn’t have any abortion bills because the people who championed those previous anti-abortion bills were exhausted from battling me. They got their win, but it felt like a loss to them because it was so exhausting and difficult. And that’s a lesson, too, why it’s so important to keep up the fight.

DEITCH: You have a very compelling floor speech about so-called abortion reversals, and I encourage everyone to look for it on YouTube, because you brought passion and pathos into the subject, but it was grounded in evidence-based policy. You did the research. You made the case about how this would impact Nebraskans in a really compelling, straightforward way. What tools do you use to get your colleagues in the Senate to prioritize evidence-based policies? What has worked when you are trying to push forward evidence when there are  charged religious and political conversations about reproductive justice? Reproductive justice issues are so based in religion for so many people, and then it’s so scientific for others, and for some, it’s about it’s about bodily autonomy—folks are just talking past each other. Where have you been able to break through that and what obstacles are still completely insurmountable?

HUNT: There are a lot of factors to that answer. The abortion reversal bill was really interesting and provided an opportunity for reproductive justice advocates because, regardless of how you feel about abortion, everybody should agree that women should not be subjected to experimental procedures that haven’t been tested that could possibly hurt their fertility in the future, that could leave them with medical outcomes that haven’t been studied—and that’s what this abortion reversal procedure does. “Abortion reversal” is this concept invented by a doctor who isn’t even licensed in obstetrics or a related field. He has a theory that, if you give a large amount of progesterone to a pregnant person after they terminate their pregnancy, that the pregnancy will be retained and the fetus will not be aborted. He doesn’t even standardize the amount of progesterone that should be prescribed. In studies, there is no evidence that there’s any difference between taking progesterone and taking a placebo. You could take a handful of Skittles and you have the same probability of not having a completed abortion.

This policy is nonsense. It’s nonsense. And furthermore, we don’t know the effect of giving large amounts of progesterone to pregnant people. How does that affect their future fertility? We don’t know. So, if you are a person who really cares about the health of mothers, about the health of women and their children, why would you advocate an unstudied, unproven, experimental procedure be put into state statute? Ridiculous and unsafe. With this policy, the right thing to do wasn’t to make it about abortion, but make it about the lack of evidence and science behind the idea of abortion reversal that could actually harm patients. Unfortunately, people had their minds made up and there was nothing I could say.

That’s why I say there’s a lot of factors involved. There are people who are open to information and open to reason and evidence, and there are people who just aren’t, who have their minds made up. These are your adversaries.

Let me explain about adversaries. For them, it’s never, ever, ever about the merits. They will do anything to take you down and you can’t have an argument or discussion or anything on the terms of the merits or the evidence because they are always going to be people who have their mind made up to oppose you. These people aren’t reachable to me, and I’m not the messenger for them. They have to be reached through other people who are authorities to them, who they trust, who they believe. That’s why building those relationships is so important, because if they don’t want to listen to me, maybe there’s a moderate who agrees with my argument and they can go tell them or maybe there’s a hospital association or a doctor.

One thing I did on that abortion bill was find out who delivered the children of the proponents to the bill, and I had those obstetricians and doctors contact the Senators and say, “Hi, I’m Dr. Smith who delivered all your kids. You should listen to Megan.” That helped a little bit. When we are talking about justice, no matter what the issue is, I feel like there’s nothing I won’t do at the end of the day to advance that cause. Because on the other side, the adversaries, there’s nothing they won’t do. Sometimes I think progressives or advocates of reason, whatever you want to call yourself, we can be a little bit too nice because we think we are going to be able to convince them with evidence. But there’s always going to be a type of person where the evidence just doesn’t matter to them.

To protect the people who are vulnerable, to protect the people who will be targeted by these policies—it’s a fight. You know, it’s a fight you have to be willing to have.