FFRF’s Strategic Response Team had banner year

FFRF’s Strategic Response Team (SRT) had another highly successful year in 2021.

The SRT handles FFRF’s rapid response, legislation and lobbying work. The SRT is tasked with: 

Federal lobbying; tracking, analyzing and educating about pending legislation; and mobilizing FFRF’s membership with action alerts.

Responding to current events for FFRF with statements, letters and articles.

Shaping public opinion with articles, editorials and letters to the editor.

Stopping imminent violations and correcting the public record with letters.

The team has three full-time members: Andrew L. Seidel, Ryan D. Jayne and Mark Dann. Also attached to SRT are FFRF communications team members Amit Pal and Casandra Zimmerman, FFRF’s legal team and FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker. 

SRT has leveraged virtual opportunities last year to work more effectively on FFRF’s dual missions. It had its busiest, most productive year on record. 

Federal lobbying

SRT governmental affairs elevated FFRF’s profile and influence on Capitol Hill and deepened our relationship with congressional offices, especially with Reps. Jared Huffman and Jamie Raskin. We’ve had a huge boost from our amazing and longtime intern Charis Hoard.

One interesting trend is that offices are coming to us for help instead of the other way around. That is the best kind of progress a lobbying team can see and what we’ve been working toward for years. 

In 2020, SRT began crafting a legislative agenda for FFRF, and, in 2021, SRT has been implementing it. A key part of the agenda was to make FFRF a vital partner in advancing the Congressional Freethought Caucus’ agenda. FFRF has been recognized by the CFC as a thought leader and a primary mover in the secular movement. 

Seidel moderated a Freethought Caucus panel discussion on the Jan. 6 insurrection with Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee, political scientist Juhem Navarro-Rivera, and Robert Jones of PRRI. Rep. Raskin, who now sits on the Jan. 6 Select Committee, attended and asked questions and Seidel was able to guide and direct the conversation. 

Expanded alliances

Outside of Congress, FFRF is sought for its expertise and effectiveness. We met nearly 100 times with allied organizations to advance our mission. FFRF was the only secular organization invited to a meeting with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. We’ve partnered with Demand Justice on judicial reform bills, including for meetings on the Hill. Leadership Conference asked us to lead a group of health care organizations in writing recommendations for the Biden Administration on how best to interpret the nondiscrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act to avoid unnecessary religious exemptions in health care. The Leadership Conference also relied on FFRF to lead meetings with seven key Senate offices on prioritizing judicial nominees. 

Tracking legislation

SRT tracks and acts on federal bills and bills in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. We tracked 1,117 separate bills; opposed 70 percent, supported 28 percent, and watched the remainder with optimistic neutrality. Of the 781 bad bills, 123 (16 percent) became law. Of the 311 good bills, 46 (15 percent) became law. 

Of the over 1,000 bills that SRT tracked, the most common state/church-adjacent bills were threats to reproductive health care. The next most common were bills that threatened LGBTQ rights, such as transgender athlete bans that typically prohibited transgender girls from participating in sports at their K-12 public schools.

In Missouri, Oklahoma, and Nebraska we helped to stop bills that would have plastered “In God We Trust” on public school walls. A bill to add bible studies to Missouri public school curricula was also defeated, as well as a uniquely awful bill in North Dakota that categorized everything that wasn’t conservative Christianity as “the religion of secular humanism.” 

After a slowdown of Project Blitz bills last year, there were renewed efforts to insert Christian nationalism into state law through this coordinated scheme, which has ceased calling itself “Project Blitz” due to bad publicity (which we gleefully fomented). 

Following the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, the biggest push by Christian nationalists by far was for outright challenges to Roe v. Wade. The most notorious of these was Texas’ SB 8, the constitutionality of which the Court is currently considering. However, dozens of similar bills all over the country are waiting in the wings for the Supreme Court to gut Roe. 

In total, we tracked 497 bills aimed at curbing abortion access, spanning 47 states. We would not have been able to track all of these bills without the tremendous help of Barbara Alvarez, FFRF’s first Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern.

Shaping opinion

In the past, FFRF would often hear about a violation happening imminently. SRT would work to stop these violations before they occur and without derailing the legal team. Most SRT rapid letters are sent when fast action can change the media narrative or stop the spread of disinformation. SRT’s ordinary response time on these letters, from notification to mailing, is less than an hour. We averaged about one such letter each week. 

A letter to the Wisconsin Attorney General asked for an investigation of the Catholic Church in the state, which we used to springboard a lobbying effort on the front. Jayne led the effort, which was successful and was the first time FFRF registered a state lobbyist. Jayne also met with state legislative offices to revise state laws to give clergy sex abuse survivors a chance at justice with kinder statutes of limitation.

SRT published 49 op-eds, articles, blogs, and letters to the editor. We are writing less for our in-house blog and instead writing for larger, prestigious outlets with a reach beyond our choir. 

Religion Dispatches has made Seidel an unpaid “senior correspondent” and all Religion Dispatches articles also go to FFRF members, who receive notifications about these pieces. 

Responding to news 

The frenetic pace of the media cycle makes SRT more important than ever. SRT’s goal is to respond to issues that concern FFRF and its missions before our members even have a chance to report them. These are essentially self-directed complaints, and they tend to be popular or newsworthy.  

We sent 58 statements for FFRF (up from 40) on a variety of issues, from elections, to the Supreme Court, to the January 6 insurrection and its fallout, to PPP abuse, and shifting demographics. SRT creatively issued a statement on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s COVID Day of Prayer, showing how harmful it is to rely on prayer instead of science. The issues we wrote on were diverse and included persecution of atheists abroad and Scotland repealing its blasphemy law. 

And much more

Our latest push is on the National Prayer Breakfast, and we sent every congressional sponsor a letter detailing the reasons they ought not to attend or sponsor the sectarian event this year.  

Another example is rebalancing the courts. It’s hard to measure progress in this area, but we’re seeing it. SRT’s constant meetings on the Hill, coordination with other groups, and repetitive messaging is making a difference. Biden and the Senate have confirmed more judicial nominees at this point than ever. Relatedly, Rep. Jerry Nadler’s press release on “Expand[ing] the Supreme . . . Legislation to Restore Justice and Democracy to Judicial System,” quoted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, which we believe is the first time FFRF has been positively quoted in a congressional press release. 

Jan. 6th report

Seidel has coordinated an intensive and comprehensive report on “Christian Nationalism and the Jan. 6, 2021, Insurrection” with Baptist Joint Committee, Katherine Stewart, Sam Perry and Andrew Whitehead. Seidel conceived the idea in the wake of the attack. Christian nationalism influenced the attack far more than most people realized and more than could be explained in a short epilogue. See Page 1 and Pages 14-15 for a preview of this report.

Legislative wins

• The STOP FGM Act of 2020, which prohibits female genital mutilation, was unanimously passed by the House and the Senate and signed into law.

• The Blasphemy Resolution, which calls on the president and the State Department to prioritize the global repeal of blasphemy laws, passed the House and the Senate.

• The Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, passed the House.

• The Women’s Health Protection Act, which protects the right to access abortion in every state, passed the House.

• The NO BAN Act, which eliminates the Muslim Ban (which could be turned against atheists abroad seeking a safe haven), limits presidential authority to suspend or restrict immigration, and prohibits religious discrimination in immigration-related decisions, passed the House. 

• Biden’s budget historically omitted the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds going to abortions. 

• We continue to build support for other key bills such as the Do No Harm Act, Judiciary Act of 2021, District Court Judgeships Act of 2021, and the Supreme Court Ethics Act.

By the numbers

• 60 statements for FFRF on a variety of issues. 

• 49 articles, op-eds, blogs and letters to the editor. 

• 54 press releases for FFRF on legal and legislative issues. 

• 49 rapid response letters written.

• Comments on 6 formal rule changes.

• 85 media appearances.

• 90 meetings with legislators on Capitol Hill or at the White House. 

• 94 action alerts that connected more than 6,100 FFRF supporters and legislators 52,678 times. 

• 1,513 bills analyzed and 1,117 tracked. 

• More than 1,000 separate SRT projects.