Strategic Response Team kicks into high gear

By Andrew L. Seidel

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Photo by Chris Line
FFRF’s Strategic Response Team was gifted jackets by generous member Adam R. Rose. Showing off the jackets are, from left, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Ryan Jayne, Amit Pal, Dan Barker, Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey and Andrew L. Seidel. Missing: Mark Dann.

FRF’s Strategic Response Team (SRT) celebrated its second year of fighting theocracy and Christian Nationalism. SRT is a nimble squad that encapsulates FFRF’s two main purposes: education and state-church separation. We work to educate the public and keep state and church separate.

After a successful first year, FFRF expanded the team in its second year. Ryan Jayne is now a full-time SRT attorney and we hired a full-time director of governmental affairs, Mark Dann. Ryan, Mark and I make up the core of the team. Also attached to SRT are FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, Director of Communications Amit Pal, Editorial Assistant Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey and the FFRF legal team. 

Our usual work falls into four basic categories:

1. Shaping public opinion with

articles and editorials.

2. Working to stop imminent violations with legal letters.

3. Lobbying on state legislation.

4. Lobbying the federal government.

Shaping opinion

Shaping public opinion often involves wading into the news cycle to drive the public debate for FFRF. The best example of this was our complaint against the judge in the Amber Guyger murder trial. Judge Tammy Kemp gave the now-guilty murderer a bible and told her to come to Jesus.

The Guyger bible complaint was widely covered, including by CNN, NPR, The New York Times and Washington Post. Fox News ran five stories on it. President Trump tweeted about it. We shaped the public debate and educated about state-church separation.

We seize teachable moments wherever we can, from a sheriff’s deputy who called for the government to kill LGBTQ Americans (he was fired), to a district attorney who consulted the bible before seeking the death penalty, to pushing back against Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to slamming governors in Oklahoma, South Carolina and Nebraska for abusing a public office to promote their personal religion.

Shaping public opinion also involves getting FFRF’s message out to our members and the public. We did this in 2019 with 46 FFRF statements, 51 press releases, and 45 articles, op-eds, blogs and letters to the editor. I wrote a number of op-eds for Rewire News, Slate, and other outlets, including a three-part series on the history, legality and Christian nationalism of the phrase “In God We Trust.”

SRT tackled a variety of issues including Trump tweeting about bible classes, the terror attacks in New Zealand, our support for the Equality Act and proposed legislation.

Stopping violations

SRT worked with the legal team to address 54 complaints requiring immediate action — what we call rapid response. For instance, we heard that the town of Charleston, Ill., was organizing trips to Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter and Creation Museum. Ryan Jayne wrote to the town the same day and the town cancelled the trips. Then, SRT sent a letter to every school district within driving distance of the ark park — spanning five states — explaining why it’s unconstitutional for public schools to organize similar trips.

Fighting Trump, nominees

SRT has opposed judicial nominees who are particularly bad on state-church issues. We also opposed the confirmation of Barr. Media outlets were surprised by Barr’s October speech at Notre Dame — “Among the militant secularists are many so-called progressives, but where is the progress? No secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.” But SRT warned about Barr’s bigotry when he was first nominated. SRT unearthed speeches Barr gave in 1992 saying nearly identical things. We spearheaded an effort to educate senators and drafted the letter that other secular groups signed, including the Secular Coalition, American Atheists and the Center for Inquiry.

Pompeo has a similarly dreadful Christian Nationalist past and has used the Department of State and its website to promote his Christian Nationalist vision of leadership. SRT sent the State Department a letter within an hour of this violation and the offending content was down a few hours later. 

State-level lobbying

In 2019, SRT reviewed 2,200 bills. Ryan tracked 500 of those bills, two-thirds of which we opposed. Only 39 of those bad bills became law. Much of the legislation we opposed did not pass, including some of the worst. We stopped:

• Private school voucher-type schemes in eight different states.

• A bill to make the bible the official state book of Mississippi.

• A Florida bill that would have required public high schools to offer for-credit bible studies, which was just reintroduced as H.B. 341 and S.B. 746 (Take action here: ffrf.us/rejectbibleclasses).

We tracked and opposed bills pushed by “Project Blitz,” a scheme aimed at codifying Christian Nationalism that features a wide variety of bad bills, including displaying “In God We Trust” in public schools.

What success we have is thanks to you, our members. Last year, 14,000 different FFRF members contacted their legislators more than 180,000 times on the 77 action alerts we sent out. The total number is actually much higher because this includes neither state nor local legislator connections nor in-person contacts.

Government affairs

Mark Dann kicked FFRF’s government relations program into high gear after being hired in May 2019 by bringing FFRF members and messages to Congress. Mark had more than 80 meetings with congressional offices and hosted a successful briefing on the Hill, featuring Bonya Ahmed and the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which supports the separation of church and state, reason and science in policy making and the equal treatment of freethinkers.

SRT helped build up the caucus  and brought three of its members on FFRF’s television show, “Freethought Matters.” (All those episodes are available on FFRF’s YouTube channel.) Having U.S. representatives appear on FFRF media was unthinkable even a few years ago.

We’ve also been racking up legislative victories. One of our key legislative objectives is to make sure all Americans have access to a secular recovery option, which is a constitutional right. Religious 12-step programs are widely available and are often a default treatment option.

With the help of partners in the secular community, such as the Secular Coalition for America, and secular recovery providers like SMART Recovery and LifeRing, we got an insertion into the budget that empowers federal agencies to work with secular recovery providers.

Alongside our allies, we are standing up to Christian Nationalists with two of our main legislative efforts: the Do No Harm Act and the Scientific Inquiry Act. The Do No Harm Act bans religious exemptions in laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights and through our allied lobbying, we’ve added 43 new co-sponsors. The Scientific Integrity Act bans political meddling in publicly funded scientific inquiry, has been voted out of committee and is on its way to the House floor.

This is just a sample of what the Strategic Response Team does. Ryan, Mark, Bailey, Amit and Annie Laurie handled more than 500 separate projects this year and a lot of those you’ll never hear about. By its nature, a lot of our work is behind the scenes. But you should know that FFRF’s Strategic Response Team will always be fighting for you.

Andrew L. Seidel is FFRF’s director of strategic response.