Celebrating Her Second Anniversary
As Director of the Secular Coalition for America
Lori Lipman Brown is a former Nevada State Senator, private practice lawyer and law professor. Her legislative record in the arenas of public education, mental health care and the repeal of consensual sex crimes resulted in her being named Civil Libertarian of the Year by the Southern Nevada chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Legislator of the Year by the Nevada chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Brown has been a frequent political commentator on television and radio and a regular columnist in a variety of print media.
Q: Lori Lipman Brown, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. You are coming into your third year as lobbyist for The Secular Coalition for America http://www.secular.org/ (SCA). You have my sincerest congratulations. For readers who may be unfamiliar with the SCA and your work for it, describe something of how you became its lobbyist and, I might add, the only lobbyist for nontheists.
A: September 19th will be my second anniversary as Director of the Secular Coalition for America. I’m thrilled to be the Congressional lobbyist explicitly representing nontheists. In 2002, four forward-thinking nontheist groups took up a challenge from Herb Silverman (president of the Secular Coalition for America) and formed a coalition for the purpose of Congressional lobbying. Silverman shared a growing concern with many Americans, after the attacks of 9/11/2001, that the United States, especially in the Congressional sphere, was seeing the imposition of a radical religious agenda which threatened the secular character of our government. These four groups, Atheist Alliance International , Internet Infidels (aka Secular Web), Institute for Humanist Studies , and Secular Student Alliance, took a “leap” but not of faith. They imagined a successful lobby effort and embarked on raising enough money to hire a full-time lobbyist. At this point, the people who supported this effort financially had no way to know whether a lobbyist for nontheists would be successful, or would have doors slammed in her/his face, but they moved forward. (Before I was hired, the American Humanist Association had joined the Secular Coalition for America, and today the Coalition has eight member organizations including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.)
This all-volunteer effort also managed to design a wonderful website, filed a complaint with the FCC regarding the use of free airtime which had been set aside for educational purposes being given to televangelists for their fundraising shows, and supported Darryl Lambert when he was expelled from the Boy Scouts of America for being an atheist. All this, and they raised about $50,000 to hire a full time lobbyist for the first year.
Meanwhile, I had stopped practicing law to become a high school teacher, and I was also teaching Constitutional law, U.S. history, and education law for the University of Phoenix in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had been involved in Nevada politics since the 1980s, and was elected to the Nevada State Senate in 1992. Especially after my tenure as a Nevada State Senator, I wanted to live in the heart of the political world (and also my favorite city for its other attributes), Washington, D.C. I was very interested in lobbying, but after trying to find a lobbying job in D.C. for about ten years, I had given up.
I was invited to be the keynote speaker for the national conference of the Secular Student Alliance in Ohio in August of 2005. The SSA was aware that religion was used against me in my reelection campaign to the Nevada State Senate (ironically, I was defeated in a nasty campaign which connected a lie about my patriotism to the fact that I’m a Jew—I can just imagine how they would have attacked me if they realized that as a humanistic Jew, I don’t believe in a god).
After my speech, members of the executive board of the Secular Coalition for America, who were attending the SSA conference, asked me to apply for the job of being their first lobbyist. Obviously, I did, and was hired on.
Q: Prior to your work for the SCA, you were the junior senator for Nevada. Were the voters aware of your nontheism and Humanist lifestance during your initial campaign? I understand that when you ran for reelection, these personal issues were used against you, at least in commercials that aired during the final weeks of the campaign. What happened?
A: I was a Nevada State Senator representing parts of southeast Las Vegas and Henderson. My opponent [Kathy Augustine] knew that the district I represented had more veterans in it than any other Nevada Senate district. Also, their phone polls showed that they couldn’t defeat me based on my record. I’m certain they didn’t know what a humanistic Jew was (and I was not interested in raising the issue of my nontheistic worldview—I wanted to be elected and reelected, and while I wouldn’t lie about my beliefs, I also didn’t bring them up).
The set-up for the reelection attack actually happened at the end of the 1993 legislative session. I had experienced five-and-a-half months of “participating” in the opening prayer at the beginning of each day’s legislative session (I was easily able to “translate” nonsectarian prayer into my humanistic beliefs and used the time to reflect on the importance of my legislative work). During the last two weeks of the six-month session, however, explicitly Christian prayers opened each session. I was the only Jew in the State Senate at the time, and it was clear why these prayers were being said. I decided to stop participating in the opening prayer, and “meditated” on what I was doing outside the chamber while the non-Jews prayed inside during those last few weeks. (Although a few supporters who were offended that the prayers had become sectarian joined me in the outer chamber as well.) The press reported on this separate time. When I ran for reelection, my opponent, Kathy Augustine, took out last minute ads commenting on my being against legislative prayer and she added a lie claiming that I had also refused to participate in the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
My own poll showed that 50% of the voters in my district from my own party would not vote for me if someone told them that I refused to pledge allegiance to the flag, so we corrected the lie in an expensive ad. Then, the day before the election, every registered voting household in my district received a letter with the headline: “The Truth Hurts, But the Truth is Still the Truth.” The content of the letter was that three Nevada State Senators claimed that they saw me turn my back on the flag, and that they understood my refusal to participate in the “traditional” daily prayer, but they were appalled at my lack of patriotism.
The reelection results were that Augustine received approximately 12,000 votes, I received approximately 10,000 votes, and 8,000 voters who showed up in our district didn’t vote for either of us (presumably unwilling to vote for Augustine because of her stands on the issues, but unable to vote for me who at that point appeared to be a liar). [For the very sad epilogue to Kathy Augustine's life story, a quick web-search will give details of her death last year, allegedly at the hands of her fourth husband, and the speculation about whether she was involved in the death of her third husband.] A few years after the reelection campaign, we got all four of the individuals who had lied about my patriotism to admit the truth in writing, and we publicized that. But these admissions were only given after over two years of fighting to clear my name in court. My father and I handled the case ourselves with the help of a good friend when we sued four powerful Nevada politicians for defamation.
Q: I’ve been curious to ask you about your working relationship with your dad, Mel Lipman, who is currently president of the American Humanist Association. You two seem so supportive of each other. Give our readers some insight into your family’s history of political activism.
A: My parents raised my brother and me to recognize that, even when we were not members of oppressed minorities, we were ethically obligated to stand up for the rights of the oppressed. They showed by their own actions how important social justice was. I remember, as a ten-year old in the late 1960s, that my parents’ car’s windows were smashed, apparently in response to a bumper sticker showing a black baby and a white baby with the caption, “Children are not born racist.” When I expressed dismay at the damage, my father explained that this was just the price we pay for doing what’s right, and not to let this (or even more severe damages) stop us from standing up for justice for everyone. My parents walked the walk—they attended civil rights and anti-war rallies. The only time I ever heard my mother lie was when we were on a bus and a white woman was making racist comments. My mother let the woman go on for a while, and then said, “My husband is black.” The woman turned bright red, and maybe learned a lesson about the fact that there are white people who don’t share her prejudices. They not only taught me to defend my own rights, but also to appreciate the help that nontheists receive from theistic allies who support our constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state.
Q: The recent report on the 110th Congress, published on the SCA’s web site, shows hits and misses. The lack of enthusiasm by elected officials to overturn faith-based initiatives seems to be one of the biggest problems, while the “coming out” of Rep. Pete Stark (CA) as a nontheist is a major advance. Stark says that he “looks forward” to a working relationship with the SCA. How do see the affiliation with Stark influencing the upcoming legislative year?
A: We are enjoying working with Representative Stark and his staff. Stark (along with Rep. George Allen) was the requester of the GAO Report regarding how the faith-based initiative is being implemented. We have been using that report in our lobby visits. It is also a tremendous asset that other church/state separation groups, including theistic allies, are working with us on this and many other efforts. And it’s not just Rep. Stark. I have been able to engage in hundreds of lobby visits, including face-to-face meetings with over forty U.S. Senators (an exceptional amount of access for any nonprofit lobbyist). The fact that Congressional members, across the board, treat fairly a representative of a constituent group that deserves to be heard is a wonderful accomplishment in itself. Of course, they appreciate that I speak to them about specific bills, and I bring information about our take on specific issues and how these issues affect us. I don’t walk into a Congressional office to argue about theological beliefs—that would be unprofessional.
Q: I’ve seen some of your interviews on cable television, specifically on Fox, with Bill O’Reilly. I’m curious about your impressions of this particular medium—”cable news”—where opinion and personality seem to matter more than fact. How do we nontheists “translate” to the general public, via cable news? Are we pigeonholed or do we manage to shatter stereotypes? Do we get a fair hearing?
A: One of the most surprising things I found when I started this job, is that I get almost no hate mail. The one exception is when I appear on Bill O’Reilly’s show. He has told me that he gets nasty e-mail all the time too (and he assumes we all do and it’s just because we’re in the public eye). One of these days I’d like to let him know that I DON’T get this response, except from his viewers. So I think it’s the medium that foments irrational hatred. In fact, Fox News loves it when a segment leads to lots of nasty responses.
O’Reilly’s producer almost didn’t use me after my first appearance, because I didn’t get angry enough. I guess for the folks at Fox it’s just a business thing … whatever increases viewership. But the scary thing is, that for many Americans, this is the only “news” they view. Their entire approach to the world around them is being formed by a medium that cares only about fomenting hatred. I do these shows because I hope that someone might be surprised to see a “nice atheist,” or that someone may hear something they’ve never heard before, which gets them to start questioning their own assumptions about the need for everyone in the U.S. to be forced to privilege religion in our government. Of course, it would be more useful for our movement if I were on “The Daily Show.” Anyone out there have a connection with John Stewart?
Q: When you examine the American landscape, do you see an increasing division between nontheism and theism, or is the divide lessening, in favor of finding common ground?
A: I see a big change just by virtue of the Secular Coalition for America being in the mix. I’m hearing more members of Congress acknowledging us when they talk about the diversity of beliefs in the United States. Representatives from the theistic allied groups I work with such as Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (a truly excellent church/state separation supporting group) have told me that one of the things they enjoy about working with me is that they have learned so much about nontheists and our ethical lifestances. Being “at the table” has made a world of difference.
Q: Finally, what has been your most satisfying moment, so far, as a lobbyist?
A: Do I have to pick one … I’m doing my dream job! Some highlights include: Hearing Rep. Andrews from New Jersey mention atheists in a long list of taxpayers who support a federally-funded program in which another representative was attempting to permit religious discrimination; receiving a note from a Christian minister who expressed having come to respect the ethics and rights of nontheists, after reading a quote I gave to a reporter from a Christian website; the wonderful responses I receive when I speak around the U.S.; the amazing support I receive from the Secular Coalition for America’s board as well as the fact that we raised enough money to hire associate director, Ron Millar, full time (increasing our staff by 100% since my hire!); having a member of Congress (Pete Stark) willing to acknowledge his nontheism when he was nominated in the SCA’s contest to find the highest level of nontheistic elected official; and the willingness of so many people to donate to a non-tax-deductible organization so that we can engage in unlimited lobbying (our monthly supporters are especially important to keeping us going, since our member organizations are limited in how much they can financially support a lobbying entity—we survive mostly on the donations of individuals from around the U.S., and even a few from other countries).
Of course, just the fact that this effort worked—better than any of us could have originally dreamed—is fantastic. I look forward to the Secular Coalition for America expanding even more in both size and influence in the coming years. I am so proud to be, not only a nontheistic American, but also a public voice for nontheistic Americans.