On Wednesday, we told you that atheists were planning to "flood" Capitol Hill in an effort to engage politicians on the secular issues that are important to them. Well -- the day of reckoning has arrived.
Today, more than 200 non-believers are assembling to speak with House and Senate offices about issues of "non-theism." But before they "flooded" congressional offices, the Secular Coalition for America held a training session to provide attendees with viable tools and information about lobbying. The Blaze was on-site in Washington, D.C., to go through the training along with non-believers from across America.
"Jesus loves!, Amanda Knief, event emcee and government relations manager for the Secular Coalition said into the mic to grab attention at the start of the event. Predictably, she was met with some playful boos from the audience. A few minutes later she joked again: "Jesus lives -- and be quiet."
"We are going to invade Capitol Hill this afternoon – because of you we have 166 meetings with Congressional staff members," Knief told attendees. "Eighty Republican staff members have agreed to meet with you -- and 86 Democrats."
Knief went on to tell the coalition of non-believers that congressional staff don't know "what's going to hit them." That being said, she encouraged participants to "be very gracious" to the offices and individuals willing to meet with them. Also, she emphasized that the Secular Coalition doesn't endorse parties and that it doesn't necessarily support Democrats or Republicans.
Then, she delved into the basics of lobbying. Starting at it's most basic definition -- "lobbying is the act of attempting to influence decisions made by officials in the government, most often legislatures or members of regulatory agencies" -- she educated the audience about ways in which they can hold influence over politicians.
"We’re going to talk about how we communicate about living as a non-theist in America," she explained.
Krief also cautioned that there may be a bit of a cultural shock for Capitol Hill staffers who have never encountered a non-believer.
"You will probably be the first people that some of these staffers meet who say to them ‘I’m an atheist,'" Knief cautioned. "You may not get the reaction you’re hoping for…and that’s okay. You need to understand that they may be uncomfortable."
In dealing with staffers and others who may disagree with a secular agenda, she stressed the need to find areas of agreement. Knief also encouraged atheists not to "fire back" when Christians engage with them during the Reason Rally on Saturday.
"Finding common ground is really important. Even someone who is diametrically opposed to helping non-theists – find something in common," Knief urged. "Once you have established a common ground it’s much easier to approach them later on about contentious issues."
She said that everyone should take "the high road – not the heavenly road," receiving some laughs from audience members. For Knief, it's all about advocating for or against "anything that has to do with religious liberty."
Rather than encouraging intense debate during today's lobbying activities -- which were scheduled for Friday afternoon following the training -- Knief encouraged a peaceful approach. She offered this advice for any individual who might encounter religious government staffers: "It’s hard, but just maintain your composure. If you feel the need to leave the meeting early, thank them for their time…tell them you’ll be late for another appointment and leave. It’s okay. Just don’t lose your composure."
There were eight elements the Secular Coalition stressed to participants in order to have a successful lobbying effort:
- Be nice to the gatekeeper
- Introduce yourself and others
- Thank the staffer/official for something, even if unrelated
- Make friends with the staffer or official by focusing on hometown, hobbies, etc.
- Ask for the official’s position on your issue
- Request action
- Maintain composure
- Follow-up with a thank you note
One of the big issues the group encouraged participants to take on was the contraceptive mandate. Rather than siding with churches who maintain that accommodations are necessity in order to protect conscience, Knief railed against such a notion.
"Our position is to talk about the fact that religious liberty lies with the individual…by allowing organizations, entities in charge of such groups making choices based on religious dogma…they are depriving the individuals of making their own personal choices about what’s right for them…by not giving them choice, you’re taking away their religious liberty," she alleged.
In addition to meeting with congressional members, Knief encouraged advocating at the local level by holding rallies, writing letters, speaking out on local issues and getting endorsements from relevant parties. In the end, she told non-believers it's essential that they come together.
"If we could collect…we’d have the same political power as the AARP," she said, invoking the fact that, collectively, they account for 16 percent of the nation. "By having a secular government – not a non-theistic government -- everyone’s rights to religious freedom are protected."