Advocacy Update — August and September 2013: School Vouchers, Bill Tracking, and Freedom of Thought

October 1, 2013

Welcome to the Office of Public Policy's monthly Advocacy Update. The Office of Public Policy (OPP) is the Washington, D.C. political arm of the Center for Inquiry (CFI). Our mandate is to advocate for public policy based on reason, science, and secular values. This includes lobbying at all levels of government — Congress, the Administration, and the United Nations — to promote and defend separation of church and state, the role of scientific evidence and secular humanist ethics in policymaking, and basic civil and political rights.

This newsletter will update you on some of our activity over the past two months (there was no update in August).

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 FEDERAL

- On Aug. 4, we applauded Mayor Vincent Gray’s signing of the Marriage Officiant Amendment Act of 2013, which allows nonreligious couples in the District of Columbia to be married in a ceremony solemnized by a Secular Celebrant.

- On Aug. 21, we heralded a new Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll that showed 70 percent of Americans reject public funding of private and religious schools through voucher programs, the highest number in two decades.

- On Sept. 4, we launched a new bill tracking web page that will easily allow our community to learn about, and keep up with, bills we are following in Congress.

- On Sept. 17, we issued an action alert urging members to contact their House representatives regarding a bill to create a special envoy within the State Department to promote the religious freedom of minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia, including countries such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. CFI had lobbied sponsors of the bill to include persecuted atheists and dissidents in the text. The bill passed as written, 402-22.

- On Sept. 17, CFI’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Dr. Elizabeth O’Casey, delivered a statement to the UN Human Rights Council raising an alarm over servile marriages, in which young girls, even small children, are force-wedded to adult men for the purpose of satisfying religious or financial obligations, or to form political bonds.

- On Sept. 17, OPP Director Michael De Dora attended the fall reception of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he directly lobbied several top-ranking Senate Democrats.

- On Sept. 24, our Legal Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Town of Greece v. Galloway, Case No. 12-696. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of official prayers in local government settings, such as invocations at city council or school board meetings.

- On Sept. 26, we joined more than a dozen individuals and organizations in writing to leaders in the United States government with specific recommendations to more effectively address the recent crackdown on civil society and religious freedom in Russia.

- Throughout September, CFI and its members urged the House of Representatives to pass a budget bill or continuing resolution that does not include any amendments that give preferential treatment to religious beliefs. Congress has yet to come to an agreement. 

STATE

- On Sept. 11, the executive director of CFI’s branch in New York City, Syd LeRoy, as well as OPP Director Michael De Dora attended the first official meeting of the Secular Coalition of New York. We plan to work together moving forward.

- CFI-Northeast Ohio has issued an action alert that urged members to contact their state lawmakers in opposition to a number of recent legislative attacks on reproductive rights. The community is also tracking a new bill that would ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected. We will have more on this bill soon.

- CFI-Michigan continues to oppose a measure in the statehouse that would broaden the state’s religious conscience protections to allow employers to deny coverage for any type of care they object to, including birth control. If you are a Michigan resident, you can contact your state senator here

INTERNATIONAL

- On Aug. 22, CFI's main representative to the United Nations, Michael De Dora, contributed an article to the Richard Dawkins Foundation newsletter on the power of using both legal and ethical standards, and stories, in arguing for freedom of belief and expression.

- On Sept. 9, Michael De Dora, attended a meeting at the United States Mission to the UN with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook on her office's work. 

- On Sept. 16, we attended a meeting of the International Religious Freedom Caucus, which focused on recent attacks on religious minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere.

- On Sept. 30, CFI marked International Blasphemy Rights Day in part by organizing an online discussion featuring persecuted young atheist Kacem El Ghazzali, who was recently forced to leave his home country, Morocco, for coming out as an atheist and facing accusations of blasphemy.   

- We have continued to work with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom on behalf of secularists and skeptics who face life-threatening blasphemy and similar charges in their home countries regarding freedom of belief or expression. We will keep you updated if and when anything happens.

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