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Humanists Promote Science-based Legislation on Darwin's Birthday

On Feb. 12, 2008, the Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS), hosted the first ever Humanist Legislative Advocacy Day.

Humanist activists in New York state came to Albany to persuade their elected representatives to support such issues as: access to emergency contraceptives; same sex marriage legislation; comprehensive sex education in the schools; and expanding therapeutic embryonic stem cell research.

Matt Cherry at Legislative Press Conference"Today, you've made history, the largest minority group never to be counted was heard," said Matt Cherry, at an afternoon press conference in the Legislative Office Building.

"Get in the game," urged Cherry. "It's past time to fight back."

Throughout the day, approximately 20 humanists from all over the state met with more than 20 legislators and their staffs.

"It's something I've always wanted to do," said Ben Dreidel, 36, of Saratoga County, N.Y.

Dreidel is a member of the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and has started his own local atheist group. He heard about the advocacy day from the Humanist Network News.

"I wanted to lobby for something good and participate in the process," said Betty Gordon of the New York City Atheists, who had traveled almost three hours for the day.

"We've got to get people more active," added Ken Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists.

Also listening to Cherry's message was The Rev. Duane Motley and several other members of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which describes itself as New York's "only full-time Christian Lobby Organization."

"The purpose of this day is to let New York legislators know that there are almost two million New Yorkers who report to have 'no religion'; and to share our mainstream values as active voters in New York," said Jennifer Lange, IHS's legislative liaison and a registered lobbyist. Lange coordinated the event.

A major focus of the meetings with legislators and staff people was to ask elected officials to vote against the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

IHS is strongly opposed to RFRA which grants special privileges to religious groups at the potential risk of all New York citizens. The bill is also unnecessary, as freedom of religion is already fully protected under both the federal and the New York State Constitution.

If passed, a virtual Pandora's Box of legal woes could burst forth, as almost anyone could claim a religious exemption to any particular law.

In one version of the bill, a white prisoner could claim that their "religion" forbade them to be interred with a black prisoner and demand segregated accommodations. Potentially, RFRA could lead to changes in laws pertaining to child abuse and neglect, labor, fair housing and zoning and other issues.

Portions of the federal RFRA bill, passed in 1993, have already been struck down through legal challenges. The Secular Coalition for America, of which IHS is a founding member, is working to oppose the remaining federal RFRA.

In New York, there are three versions of the bill, one sponsored by Gov. Elliot Spitzer and one by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

An upstate assemblymember said that he believes RFRA is being introduced now because "there's a very aggressive conservative Christian and Jewish presence."

The lobbying date coincided with the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday, an event celebrated world-wide by secular and religious groups alike. The Darwin Day Celebration is now an official program of IHS.)

At the request of IHS, a resolution was introduced by Assemblymembers Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, and Richard N. Gottfried, D-Manhattan. The resolution garnered about two dozen other sponsors.

Also, at the request of the Institute, Matthew Chapman, Darwin's great-great-grandson and a resident of New York City, wrote a letter to legislators asking them to vote in support of the Darwin Day resolution.

On the eve of what would have been Darwin's 199th birthday, the New York State Legislature unanimously passed the resolution honoring the famed evolutionist, becoming the first state in the U.S. to do so.

Resolutions carry more weight than proclamations because they are voted on by legislators, and become part of the permanent legislative records.

Among other things, the resolution "recognizes that sound scientific-based evidence is the cornerstone of good public policy."

(On Friday, Jan. 11, the city of Albany issued its own Darwin Day Proclamation, at the request of IHS, joining many other cities and municipalities.)

By the end of the Legislative Advocacy Day, most of those involved felt their message had been heard.

At least one Democratic Assemblymember agreed with the lobbyists that "you don't want to see the blurring of the line (between religion and government)."

He told the assembled humanists, atheists and freethinkers, that they were the first group that had spoken up against RFRA.

The assemblymember, who is actually a co-sponsor of one of the current RFRA bills, said that he would look at it again.

A member of the New York City Atheists felt that her local Assemblyperson had been receptive.

The Humanist Legislative Advocacy Day is foreseen as an annual event that will grow larger each year. However, individuals may also come to Albany any time during the legislative session to lobby for humanist rights alongside our legislative liasion.

Lange also urges concerned humanists to lobby their representatives at their home offices on Thursdays and Fridays now, and when session ends, roughly on June 23.

"I want them (legislators) to know we exist and that we are voters," said Maureen Furlong of Albany. "I wish there were 10 busloads full of people."

"It was a great event," said Cherry afterwards. "It was the most exhilarating day I can remember in 17 years working for humanist causes."

This article originally appeared in the Humanist Network News and is reprinted with permission. Author Ruth N. Geller is the editor of Humanist Network News, the weekly e-zine of the Institute for Humanist Studies.

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