Sunday, October 16, 2011

Serah Blain at the University of Chicago

In case you missed it, Serah Blain, of the Secular Coalition of Arizona, gave a talk on secular political activism last week during the weekly meeting. Watch the talk below. A transcript is provided after the break.

So, first I'm going to tell you a little bit about what I do and my experiences in Arizona, and then I'm going to talk about what I hope to get you all to do here in Illinois. So, I'm a lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for Arizona, which is the first state affiliate of the Secular Coalition for America, and they lobby on behalf of non-theistic Americans at the national level, so we do that at the state level, and we lobby mostly on issues of separation of church and state - nobody threw something at me, I said um like four times - we, we try to focus on substantive issues versus symbolic issues, so we're not as interested in the Ten Commandments in the state house versus how religious people are using their arbitrary values to oppress minorities or vulnerable populations. So, one of the best ways to ensure reality-based government is to keep religion out of it. So I'm not here to talk about the evils of religion, persay, but I am here to talk about the evils of religion in government. And we can talk about the evils or religion persay at the restaurant afterward.

So, here's the deal, is that when religion is allowed to intrude on secular civil government, religious people are allowed to use faith or tradition or authority to oppress people, minorities and vulnerable people, and then there's no recourse because rational arguments can be dismissed with arbitrary, you know, "God said homosexuality is gross, so they can't have rights anymore". So we cannot allow laws to privilege religious ideas or be based on anything besides reason and evidence, period. So, keeping that in mind... Arizona!

In Arizona, Democrats have less than a third of the votes in both houses, and while the Secular Coalition for Arizona is a non-partisan organization, in Arizona the Republican Party has quite openly declared war on separation of church and state, and are trying to sell this idea that church state separation is a myth made up by the "liberal elite" to corrupt the family or something. So, um, so we have legislators... well, we have one openly non-theistic state senator, Kyrsten Sinema, who sort of affectionately refers to her colleagues as "flat earth theorists", which is not terribly far from the truth.  They openly talk about the Earth being 6000 years old and trying to make sure that science education is based on those values, so.... yeah. And then we have the Center for Arizona Policy, which like the Illinois Family Institute, is trying to inject Biblical principles into the public arena. And since over the past year they've passed 12 bills that have no secular basis whatsoever: adoption legislation that preferences married heterosexual people over singles or same-gendered couples when adopting children out of foster care, and there's additional barriers to divorce- like, there's an extra 180 day waiting period now - so it's privileging a particular family form based on religious values versus what actually is good for human well-being. So, anyway, point being, reason-loving secularists in Arizona do not have a lot of allies; there are a lot of homophobes, a lot of Young Earth Creationists, a lot of religious ideologues. But I really like working in this environment, because it's constantly challenging and I'm constantly learning about to negotiate with people with extremely different ideological perspectives and how you transcend that extreme different to negotiate for joint gains. And then hopefully I can take that knowledge and share it with people like you, who are going to effect change in your state government.

 So... anyway, so that's done. So yes, Arizona's horrible, really really horrible, but - it's pretty! - in some ways the environment there is a little bit easier than what you have in Illinois, simply because our religious ideologues are very open about where they're coming from. While in Illinois you have people who are in the pocket of the Illinois Family... is it Council? Institute? Institute, yeah... and then the Catholic Conference as well, they're not openly saying on the campaign trail that they're riding like a spaceman for Jesus, while in Arizona they will say that. So you have to be a little bit discerning in figuring out what the motivation behind legislation is, is it sort of preferencing a specific religious world-view arbitrarily, but you're all fantastic critical thinkers so you should be good.

But! They have websites where they publish their legislative agendas. So, you can go to the Illinois Family Institute and you can go to the Catholic Council and look at what their legislative agenda is for the upcoming year and then track those bills. When you see something that's disturbing, stop it before it gets out of committee. Because once you hear about it on the news, it's already too late. People have, all the backroom negotiations has been done, the deals are done, people have been convinced, and you don't have an opportunity. But when it's in committee, you can testify in committee, you can make arguments, it hasn't gotten media attention, constituencies aren't involved... that's the place to go.

So, just a brief run-down of some of the stuff that's going to be coming up in Illinois: so the Illinois Family Institute... oh, guys, I've got to tell you, their website was *so* disturbing, even the Center for Arizona Policy sort of couches things a little bit in... this was just like.... ok, "We distinguish the difference between the Supreme Court's misinterpretation of President Thomas Jefferson's wall of separation between the church and state and the correct meaning that the state is forbidden to encroach on the duties man owes to his Creator." So that's... that's what's going on for you guys. So they actively oppose comprehensive sex ed policy, which is maddening to me. I could do a whole talk on that; it's completely unethical to deny young people factual information about their own bodies that enables them to make responsible decisions about their own sex lives, and all the evidence points to the efficacy of comprehensive sex ed, so... but, not going to go on a tangent about that. And of course, they oppose equal marriage rights, which, Illinois does have the civil unions, the "separate but equal", yay... but they're working on getting rid of that as well. And not only just marriage equality, any human rights. They say "We support a full repeal of SB3186, a law that adds sexual orientation and gender identity to Illinois's Human Rights Act. We believe such laws invariably erode the freedom of people of faith and others who oppose homosexuality in normalizing gender confusion, "transgenderism", as a matter of conscience. We support laws to protect adoptive and foster children from being placed in homosexual households..."  I threw up a little in my mouth... 

Anyway, so let's move on to the Illinois Catholic Conference.  This is actually an interesting lobby group, because their agenda has a lot of really good policy ideas, that, maybe are inspired by religious values, but can be supported on a secular basis. And those are all mixed in with the silly, crazy stuff. There are some really great things for health care and for working out poverty relief, and then they're also trying to eliminate programs like sex ed and so on. But I mention the good policy because this is an organization you might consider cooperating with where your world-view does overlap. When you can partner with an organization like this, not only do you enlarge your constituency for the policy that you're lobbying on, but then you're building relationships with people who are going to disagree with you on other issues, and then you have a more friendly basis  to negotiate over that difference. So I really encourage collaboration wherever you can find it, in whatever unlikely places. It really gives you future opportunities. So...yes, ok... so, they would like to eliminate abortion... they're also pushing for conscience clauses, which would enable pharmacists to deny women access to safe, legal medication for a returning medical condition, and a bunch of other stuff. Again, I encourage you to look at their website and pay attention to their legislative agendas.

And then, one other group I want to mention, that's going to have some boiler plate legislation coming up in the next season, is Personhood USA. You may have heard of them before, because they've had votes come up in, I think, Mississippi and Colorado, that the law gives legal personhood rights to unborn fetuses... I don't want to use the word unborn, I don't like it ... preborn? ... *chatter*... Well, like, everything is unborn ... *chatter*... And I want to say, too, there's a whole range of rational positions you can hold on abortion, but if we're going to legislate on this issue, it has to be based on reasons, not on a sense of a feeling that a blastocyst is a person with a soul, like, that's not ... it's not cool.

So, we check out organizations like this, we follow their agendas, and then what's next? So the Illinois State Legislature has a pretty user-friendly website, and you can go on there and you can track bills, you can follow them, when they're going to be scheduled for committee, you can find out who your legislator is, who's the chair of what committee... so I encourage you to check out their website, and try to watch where this legislative agenda is translating on the calendar. And you certainly can send emails and letters and phone calls to a legislator, but I highly, highly, highly recommend investing the time in getting in front of an actual person. So, perhaps organizing a lobby day with your group and maybe other groups on campus can go down with you to Springfield, but it's much harder for a legislator to write off an actual person, and particularly if you're able to bring people with you who are affected by the legislation you're talking about... I know what when I did citizen lobbying with Equality Maryland on marriage equality issues, we brought gay and lesbian families with us, and we brought their kids with us, and it was much harder for the legislators to say "Your family is not legitimate" when they're talking to an eight year old who loves their mom, you know. And it's... I know that some people feel like that's emotional manipulation, but we all know that people are not motivated by rational argument; like, we can agree with something intellectually, but what causes us to make a decision is a non-rational component. So we have to be willing to utilize that method of persuasion as well.

So, I think that's kinda the rundown. I want to have plenty of time for questions and discussion. And I guess one other thing I want to mention is: always avoid positional language. If you're talking about abortion, don't use words like pro-life and pro-choice. Find out your legislator’s background, meaning their religion, frame things in their own language, because then you have common ground and common language and you're talking about the same thing, you're not drawing battle lines. If you come in and say "This is anti-choice legislation," and you're talking to a pro-life legislator, then they're going to be like "Yes, good, it is." And it's insulting, you know, to call yourself pro-choice is to say they're anti-choice, which may not be how they think about what motivates their position. And you know, they say "I'm pro-life", is saying that you're anti-life, which is not true either, so it's disingenuous language, and it's spurious and ... yeah. So, really truly truly, I want you guys to get involved, because the major erosion happening to church state separation is happening at state and local levels. It's happening at school boards, it's happening in the state house, and it's not glamorous, if you pay attention to the national scene, but it's getting chipped away at the local level. And you guys are smart and passionate and you're an organized constituency already, so you have a lot of power to effect change. So I really encourage you to do that. And I am happy to answer any questions.

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