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Ms. Brown Goes to Washington

When the Internet Infidels became one of the founders of the Secular Coalition for America three years ago, the Coalition engaged in some pretty tough fights. As an all-volunteer organization, the Coalition took on televangelists proselytizing and fundraising on public airtime reserved for educational programs; opposed the ousting of Eagle Scout and Atheist, Darrell Lambert, from the Boy Scouts of America; and weighed in on the lawsuit challenging the use of “under God” in the pledge in schools. Other Coalition founders (in addition to the Internet Infidels, maintainers of The Secular Web) include: Atheist Alliance International, the Institute for Humanist Studies, and the Secular Student Alliance. More recently, the American Humanist Association has also been added to the Coalition.

The Coalition achieved another tremendous goal this year; it raised enough money to hire its first full-time staff. After an extensive search, former Nevada State Senator, Lori Lipman Brown became the Director/Lobbyist of the Coalition, and long-time activist Ron Millar became its Legislative Assistant.

Brown practiced law in Nevada during the 1980s, then went back to school to become a high-school English and speech teacher in at-risk public schools in Las Vegas. In 1992, Brown was elected to a Nevada State Senate seat. Her legislative successes in the areas of privacy (she authored the successful repeal of Nevada’s consensual sex crimes law), mental-healthcare reform, and school-curriculum reform, won her numerous awards including the American Civil Liberties Union Southern Nevada Chapter’s Civil Libertarian of the Year for 1994.

Millar has held administrative positions at the National Research Council of The National Academies, the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, and the Virginia affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League. He has also worked in political campaigns, lobbied at state and national levels, and owned a publishing company specializing in legislative monthlies.

The Coalition’s President, Herb Silverman, told reporters that the nonreligious may be the last minority that politicians still feel comfortable demonizing. Silverman told The Las Vegas Sun newspaper, “We want them to recognize that there is another constituency out there. We don’t expect to turn Congress around overnight. We’re in this for the long haul.”

Brown and Millar started on September 19, 2005, and immediately generated a great deal of press attention. Brown has appeared on Fox’s Big Story and The O’Reilly Factor, as well as MSNBC’s The Situation. “After each television appearance, we get many people contacting us. Often they want to donate money, get more information about the groups within the coalition and how they can join them, or just to thank us for finally being here to represent them,” says Brown. “A few callers were literally choked-up explaining how isolated they felt in our society until they heard someone on TV finally standing up for Atheists.”

The print media has been equally interested. USA Today published an article about Brown on her first day on the job. That article generated numerous donations on the Coalition’s website. Brown was also interviewed by Congressional Quarterly and the London Observer as well as papers in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Brown most enjoys her radio and webcast interviews throughout the nation (Baker, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Boston, Massachusetts have all hosted Brown on their ABC Radio talk-show affiliates.) “Regardless of the political leanings of the hosts and the callers, I enjoy having the longer format to explain who and what we are,” Brown says. “It’s especially fun to correct their inaccurate historical portrayals of our allegedly Christian Nation.”

In their first two weeks on the job, the team of Brown & Millar have attended briefings, crafted legislative alerts for the website, and made visits to Congressional offices on topics ranging from employment discrimination based on religion in federal Head Start programs to the proposal to send federal funds in the form of vouchers to religious schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “When Hurricane Katrina hit, everything else–except for Supreme Court nominations–was put on hold,” says Brown. “However, with relief efforts came a concerted effort to shift federal money to religious organizations. We are opposed to shifting secular governmental functions to faith-based programs.”

In order to address the many issues arising out of the need to deal with the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress is remaining in session beyond their usual adjournment date. Brown states, “The opportunistic use of these tragic events to push more federal funds into faith-based organizations will keep the Coalition staff plenty busy. However, other issues of church/state separation–well, the lack of required separation–are still here. There are some nonhurricane-related bills, resolutions, and legal challenges we will continue to work on.” One example of such an effort is the legislation to require pharmacies to make arrangements for filling legal prescriptions for birth-control pills regardless of their pharmacist’s personal religious beliefs about birth control. (In more than a dozen states, women have reported not being able to fill prescriptions for birth-control pills because of pharmacists’ refusal to fill–and sometimes confiscation of–the prescription.) Readers may find other issues on which the Coalition is working at www.secular.org.

The Coalition also stands ready to assist in an upcoming legal battle to substitute the inclusive motto “E Pluribus Unum” on U.S. currency for the current “In God We Trust,” which was added to coins in the mid-1800s and to paper currency during the 1950s. According to Brown, “Some of our members don’t see the importance of changes in language, such as eliminating the phrase “under god” in the pledge. Many of us are so used to living in a society permeated with religion-speak that we don’t even notice how the constant focus on language designed to make us invisible adds to our vulnerability, both politically and in the general dialogue of our nation.”

Brown hopes not only to have a long-term effect on Congress, but also to change the national dialogue. “Myths and assumptions which marginalize us need to be addressed. We are no more or less ethical than our religious counterparts; although watching the current investigations and indictments of some of those members of our government who espouse the most religious viewpoints might be an indicator that we may trump the theocrats in the ethics arena.”

Brown credits excellent work by coalition supporters in generating the wonderful publicity she has received. She also enjoys working with the Coalition webmaster, Mary Ellen Sikes, who is able to update the website as new issues arise. “While long-term progress is slow,” Brown explains, “short-term action happens very fast in Congress. Having the ability to e-mail our supporters and to list legislative actions which can be taken on our website is essential.” Brown adds, “Another essential part of the website is the donation link. The coalition volunteers did a great job of raising the money to hire Ron and me, but how many years we can continue doing this work will depend on whether generous donations continue.”

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