During coronavirus crisis, Congress’s first caucus for nonreligious belief seeks a larger role in promoting science (Washington Post)

By Julie Zauzmer April 9, 2020 at 4:53 p.m. GMT-3

When Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) found out that a Trump administration rule that restricts research using fetal tissue from elective abortions was hampering scientists seeking treatments for the novel coronavirus, he had a coterie of like-minded members of Congress ready to help him protest.

The group is called the Congressional Freethought Caucus — the first caucus for nonreligious members of Congress and those who advocate for keeping religion out of government. Huffman, the only avowed non-theist in Congress, and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) founded the group in 2018.

The coronavirus struck just as the caucus’s dozen members were having discussions early this year about how they could play a more active role in policymaking. The crisis has provided an opportunity for them to loudly proclaim the importance of science as the grounding for laws.

“We urge you to prioritize science during an unprecedented global health emergency and remove all barriers to lifesaving research,” Huffman wrote in a public letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, asking HHS to remove its ban on government scientists using fetal tissue that women choose to donate to research after an abortion. Four fellow members of the Freethought Caucus added their names to the letter, and they got eight colleagues outside the caucus to sign on.

While the small band of lawmakers in the Freethought Caucus comes nowhere close to the powerful heft of the religious right, they say they hope to be a counterweight, pushing the balance back toward secularism.

These lawmakers are agitating for secularism within a legislature that has long been comfortable with some level of mixing faith with government — every session starts with a prayer from a congressional chaplain or an invited religious guest — and that skews far more religious than the country it represents. More than a quarter of Americans say they identify with no religious tradition, and almost 1 in 10 say they don’t believe in God or aren’t sure God exists. Huffman is the only one out of 535 members of Congress who says the same.

As the caucus members discussed ramping up their efforts in the early months of the year, they listed many goals: Passing a bill condemning the blasphemy laws that target nonbelievers and dissident believers in foreign countries. Securing government funding for secular sobriety programs that compete with the higher-power-focused Alcoholics Anonymous. Passing legislation that would make it harder for the president to disband scientific advisory committees.

In early March, before the coronavirus took precedence, Huffman said one of his main goals for the caucus was getting behind the No Ban Act, a bill that would put an end to President Trump’s travel ban (the one that started at the beginning of his presidency, not the new coronavirus-inspired bans). Huffman and many other Democratic lawmakers view the president’s ban as targeting Muslims specifically.

“It’s one of a zillion ways this administration is weaponizing religion in insidious ways,” he said. He said the Freethought Caucus was also working on a letter urging the House Appropriations Committee to defund many of the groups Trump has set up that bring religion into government: a religious liberty task force in the Justice Department that focuses on the rights of Christians; Trump’s White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative; the State Department’s controversial new Commission on Unalienable Rights.

Though a few well-known congressional caucuses have significant legislative clout, most caucuses exist simply as a way for members to sign up and show affiliation with a cause, not as active advocacy groups. Huffman and Raskin are trying to turn their two-year-old affiliate group into more of a mover and shaker.

Recently, Huffman set up a meeting on Capitol Hill on behalf of former Muslims from countries where being a nonbeliever might expose them to violence or prosecution. These former Muslims said that they had been conversing in secret Facebook groups, but that Facebook’s policies could allow their identities to be potentially exposed. Huffman got three Facebook employees to attend a meeting to discuss remedies to the problem.

When Dan Barker, the president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sued the House chaplain in an attempt to get permission to deliver a nonreligious invocation before the House like clergymen do, the Freethought Caucus filed a friend-of-the-court brief.

Barker said the caucus invited him and other leaders of secular organizations to a meeting in February, where they asked for ideas of issues to work on. The idea of supporting secular addiction recovery programs was a popular one.

“We’ve always known not all members of Congress are religious. … They thought it was politically dangerous. Now we’re learning that it’s not so dangerous anymore, especially with the demographics. The fastest-growing religious idea right now in the country is nonreligious,” Barker said. “It was really fun to sit around the table with our representatives talking about real secular values.”

The caucus’s dozen members are all Democrats. Three are Jewish — Raskin, Steve Cohen (Tenn.) and Susan Wild (Pa.); two are Catholic — Daniel Kildee (Mich.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.); Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) is Lutheran; and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.) is Episcopalian. One of the two Buddhists in Congress, Hank Johnson (Ga.), is a member. Three members have not answered CQ Roll Call’s questionnaire asking every U.S. lawmaker’s religion — Sean Casten (Ill.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.) — but have never identified themselves as nonreligious like Huffman.

In early March, Huffman went to a meeting of the far larger and more influential Progressive Caucus and made a pitch for members to join the Freethought Caucus. Some are thinking about it, he said.

The nation is growing increasingly nonreligious. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that 26 percent of Americans now say they are not affiliated with any religious tradition, compared with 17 percent in 2009.

Many of those unaffiliated Americans still believe in God and incorporate spiritual practices into their lives. But the share of atheists has doubled, from 2 percent of Americans in 2009 to 4 percent in 2019. An additional 5 percent now call themselves agnostics, compared with 3 percent a decade earlier.

Nonreligious people are far less organized than religious groups, which have the advantage of gathering their believers together every week. But secular groups like the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association have lobby days where they take like-minded citizens to petition their members of Congress, and Huffman said his colleagues have taken notice.

“Their numbers are beginning to surprise people,” Huffman said. “This caucus is probably going to be more and more relevant. People are going to start demanding this kind of work in Congress.”

Jason Lemieux, who leads lobbying efforts for the secular Center for Inquiry, said it’s important for Americans to simply see this group exists in Congress.

“They consider it a very important goal to even have this place at all, where you can be a member of Congress and not believe in God, or explicitly support the rights of those who don’t believe in God,” he said.

Raskin said his advocacy for secularism sneaks into his unrelated work as a congressman. In his recent time in the spotlight as a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings, Raskin said he tried to quote as often as possible from Thomas Paine — the pamphleteer of the American Revolution, who was outspokenly skeptical of religion.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked him to change Paine’s most famous sentence, he said, in a nod to gender equality: “These are the times that try men’s and women’s souls.”

Raskin wants to get a statue of Paine put up somewhere in or near the Capitol. When he and Huffman first founded the Freethought Caucus, he suggested a different name for it: the Thomas Paine Caucus.

But the people they consulted told them that Paine’s ideas were still too radical, more than two centuries later.