Strategic Response Team hits the ground running

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s newly created Strategic Response Team has wasted no time fighting for your rights — with two successful outcomes already in the books.

While the behind-the-scenes legal work has been happening for years at FFRF, the Strategic Response Team is a formalization of the framework of FFRF’s ongoing “rapid response team,” combined with a revved-up legislative agenda as part of FFRF’s ongoing Educate Congress Campaign.

As the new director of strategic response, FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel oversaw two big issues: helping defeat some Trump judicial nominees and helping protect the Johnson Amendment as debate over the tax package began.

Seidel identified one judicial nominee who stood out as particularly unqualified: Jeff Mateer. Mateer garnered notoriety when his comments about trans kids being part of “Satan’s plan” surfaced. He’s a long-time nemesis of FFRF and state/church separation. FFRF had even faced off against Mateer in court, besting him in our lawsuit removing a Jesus portrait from public schools in Jackson, Ohio. At that time, Mateer represented First Liberty Institute, a theocratic law firm seeking to tear down the wall of separation that FFRF guards. First Liberty, Seidel quips, “is basically the anti-FFRF.”

Of the many groups opposing Mateer’s nomination, FFRF was the only one to compile a definitive record of his unfitness for office. Seidel and FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne authored and submitted a full report to Senate Judiciary Committee members cataloging Mateer’s many “sins.” Seidel and FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert traveled to Capitol Hill in early November, speaking with Senate Judiciary Committee staffers about Mateer and the report.

“We’ve tangled with Mateer before and knew he would be a disaster for the federal bench,” explains Seidel, who put in countless hours watching Mateer’s talks and reviewing his written record. “We pulled out all the stops to end his hopes of a lifetime appointment.” Mateer’s nomination was ended late last year.

The Strategic Response Team also stepped up FFRF’s ongoing work to help protect the Johnson Amendment, which keeps nonprofits nonpartisan. Under it, churches and tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofits may not endorse or oppose political candidates. They may discuss and advocate on issues; they may not use tax-exempt resources for political purposes.

The House version of the tax reform bill gutted the Johnson Amendment. The Senate version left it untouched.

The team tracked every attempt to repeal the Johnson Amendment and mobilized FFRF members from across the country to contact their senators and representatives, arming them with the tools and talking points needed to make an impact.

Other state/church separation groups and nonprofits also worked to keep the amendment intact. The final bill left the Johnson Amendment alone.

“This win for secularism is probably bigger than most people realize. It keeps billions of dollars in dark money out of churches and stops a desperate religious power grab,” explained Seidel.

“FFRF has done more than our members know,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, when discussing the Johnson Amendment victory. “We’ve had 30 meetings with legislators about this issue and did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to protect this important rule.”

The Strategic Response Team has four basic duties:

• Representing freethinkers with elected officials.

The team oversees FFRF’s Educate Congress Campaign. Unveiled in 2017, the campaign involves FFRF attorneys taking turns lobbying in Congress and in state legislatures. Three week-long lobbying campaigns involving six attorneys took place in 2017.

• Overseeing FFRF action alerts, a thankless task that Editorial Assistant Molly Hanson handles with aplomb.

In 2017, more than 100 alerts, many at the federal level, went out, utilizing Engage software, making it a matter of seconds for members to easily contact members of Congress over timely legislation.

• Following legislation that impacts state/church separation, for good or ill.

“We tracked about 75 pieces of legislation in 2017,” said Jayne, who is assigned to the response team for that purpose. Prior to September, FFRF Junior Counsel Sam Grover ably tracked legislation, also testifying before Wisconsin legislative committees.

• Overseeing rapid response.

“We keep our finger on the pulse of secularism and work to quickly respond to any challenges,” explains Seidel.

This includes writing letters about potential violations; drafting FFRF statements in response to important legal developments or current affairs; and writing op-eds, letters to the editor, blogs and articles to educate the public on these issues.

Also involved in the team are Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Markert and Director of Communications Amit Pal. All staff attorneys participate in the Educate Congress Campaign.