Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, spoke at the University Unitarian Church in Seattle on Saturday, Dec. 1 at an event co-sponsored by the Secular Jewish Circle of Puget Sound.
A former Nevada State Senator, lawyer in private practice, and lecturer at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and the University of Phoenix, Brown is now taking her years of legal experience to the Capitol to lobby on behalf of non-theists. Although she has only been in Washington, D.C. a short time, she has already worked on a variety of issues including same-sex marriage, school vouchers, fair-hiring practices and fact-based sex education.
JTNews spoke with Brown prior to last weekend’s event.
JTNews: What will your talk on Saturday focus on?
Brown: I’m going to focus on what the Secular Coalition for America is, why it exists and how it got started. Mostly, though, I’m going to talk about how the first congressional lobbyist for non-theists is being received by congressional offices, by theistic allies in the church-state separation movement and by the media.
JTNews: How are you being received in Washington?
Brown: Better than any of the people who started this organization ever could have dreamed. There was so much fear that I wouldn’t get into any doors, that groups like Interfaith Alliance, the Baptists Joint Committee and even Americans United for Separation of Church and State might be hesitant to bring a non-theist voice into the mix. None of that happened. Day One, I was invited to a briefing by public education groups on vouchers. Day Two, I was sitting at the table, lobbying with the religious and other church-state separation groups. Even on the marriage amendment, when we lobbied against that, I was afraid that the LGBT community might not want the non-theist voice in the mix. But that wasn’t the case at all. Bottom line, it’s been a wonderful reception.
JTNews: What about in the media?
Brown: Now in the media, there’s been a lot more interest from right-wing than [from] left-wing media, even though Mother Jones did a nice article about our coming on the scene. For television, it’s been Fox News and Bill O’Reilly. I’ve also gotten a lot of requests from right-wing or Christian radio, which I always find interesting because it may be the first time they’ve ever heard someone like me.
JTNews: How do you prepare for that kind of an interview, where going in you know you may be asked some not-so-friendly questions?
Brown: Oh, I love the not-so-friendly questions because I respond friendly. I respond rationally. In fact, O’Reilly’s producer doesn’t even call me anymore. He said, “You just don’t get angry enough.” I think it’s a little disconcerting for them to hear someone say “I’m a Humanistic Jew” or “I’m an atheist,” but then say, “I used to do a lot of volunteer work with homeless families, and no, it’s not as you thought, that if someone didn’t believe in God, they’d be out murdering and raping people all the time.”
No, actually I care about my fellow human beings and the world and it’s disarming for them to hear that. And for some people, it may be the first time they’ve ever heard that.
JTNews: You’re a Humanistic Jew yourself. Where do you feel Secular Jews, or just Jews in general, fit in when talking about non-theistic rights?
Brown: When you look at issues like stem cell research, or sex education, there’s so much overlap both with Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanists, and even Conservative Jews, to a large extent. I think, also, if you look historically, Jews have often been allies in other people’s civil rights struggles. They were so active in labor rights, in civil rights for African Americans, in the LGBT equality movement. So even religious Jews understand that you can’t just stand up for yourself, you have to stand up for people who are not religious Jews. So I think they can overlap and be our allies because they understand tikkun olam and they understand that it’s important to have diversity. They’re a minority in a Christian nation, so they have that understanding.
JTNews: Aside from the Secular Jewish Circle, do you work with other religious organizations very often?
Brown: Oh yeah. We work a lot with the Interfaith Alliance. We work a lot with the Baptists Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Unitarian Universalist congregations. All of these groups lobby with us from time to time — we work well together, we share materials, we help each other, and that, I think, has made us really powerful.
JTNews: What’s the one thing that you hope people here in Seattle will take away from your presentation?
Brown: I think that in Seattle, most people have the luxury of not having to think about what happens with the mixture between church and state on a regular basis because Seattle tends to be accepting of diversity. But what I want them to know is what happens to people living in other parts of the country, especially children, who are confronted by this every day. I want them to know that just because they don’t feel it here, [that that] doesn’t mean there aren’t still people who are being harassed or ostracized.