My speech at the Unite Women rally

May 1, 2012

As I wrote last week, I traveled to New York City this past Saturday to speak at a rally organized by Unite Women, an outfit working to band together people against the recent attacks on women’s rights -- in part by orchestrating marches and rallies across the United States on April 28. Unite Women has been endorsed by a wide range of groups, such as the Center for Inquiry, Americans United for Separation for Church and State, Catholics for Choice, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The rally in New York City was a success, as were -- at least according to news reports -- rallies in Arizona, Virginia, Connecticut, and Texas.

While you can watch actress Martha Plimpton's wonderful address here, I haven't seen a recording of my speech (or any other speech, for that matter). So, as friends have been asking for it, here is my speech in text form:

Hello! Thank you for coming! As was said in my introduction, I work at the Center for Inquiry. We are proud to be one of the sponsors for this great rally!

For those who don’t know of us, CFI is a nonprofit organization that advances reason, science, and secular values through education and advocacy. You can find more information at our table, which is being staffed by our outreach branch here in New York City.

Now ... my job at CFI is director of government relations. That means I lobby Congress and the Administration for separation of religion and government; for public policy based on scientific evidence and the Constitution; and to protect civil rights.

I am also CFI’s representative to the United Nations, where I work to combat efforts by Islamic countries to restrict basic human rights.

So, in short: not all “lobbyists” are bad!

I’m very honored to be here today, to share the stage with so many esteemed speakers. But let's be honest: it is appalling that, in the year 2012, we have to hold rallies to demand reproductive rights and equality of sexes.

And while I hate to be a downer, it’s worth pondering for a moment why we are here today -- where this war on women comes from. There is a range of factors, but I would submit that religious belief and religious tradition play central roles. And I see evidence for this across the world.

In the U.S., the Catholic Church is focusing much of its energy on fighting simple, effective rules that require insurance companies to cover preventative health care such as contraception and birth control.

Meanwhile, religiously conservative politicians in Congress and statehouses are working to limit a woman’s access to abortion in record numbers. They are also working to defund Planned Parenthood -- which, as it turns out, largely provides contraception, cancer screenings, and treatment for STDS. And they want to slash funding for services that protect and help women who have been victims of rape, and domestic abuse.

On the global stage, the Church is also working with political leaders in South America to limit reproductive rights; and in Africa to restrict the use of contraception.

And the picture is even grimmer in some Islamic and Asian countries, where some young women are subjected to the brutal practice of genital mutilation and experience very restricted social lives.

These represent just the tip of the iceberg. Yet these ... these are prime examples of religious belief controlling public policy and public life.

Now, I believe a woman should have full control over her reproductive system. And I believe all persons deserve the full range of moral and legal rights equally -- regardless of social or cultural context.

And as my friends and family know, I could give a philosophical lecture on “why” I believe all of this for a good hour. But since I’m probably already over my time, allow me to summarize my thoughts as such:

Religious institutions and their dogma have no place in public policy.

And because I know someone will take this statement as an attack on the right of religious believers to believe and practice as they would like, let me also say this:

I would defend, at risk of death, the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, belief, and expression, but here is what I ask in return: please do not force your religious doctrines on me -- or on us. If you don’t want to use contraception or have an abortion, fine. But there are no good secular reasons to restrict reproductive health care or equality among the sexes.

The United States is not a theocracy. We live in an open, pluralistic society with a secular constitution. Our government should be neutral on the matter of religion -- neither supporting it nor hindering it. Our laws should not be based on faith, which is private, but on reason and evidence, which are public. They should be able to withstand the most critical of scientific and philosophical inquiries.

Now, all of this is very important, and we ought to think, talk, write, and rally on these issues as much as we can. But let's remember to not stop with social advocacy -- let's leave here today committed to political engagement.

As others today have said, voting is an important and essential first step in this area. But we can't sit back after people get voted into office and hope it all goes well. We need to let our elected officials know our views -- and often. Write and call your representatives and tell them you stand for reproductive freedom, for full equality, and for government neutrality on religion.

Anything less would leave the health and rights of women to the religious right -- and we have seen the damage they can do.

Your representatives need to hear from you -- from us. Now let's use today as a launching point and go make our voices heard!

Let me know if you have any thoughts.

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