by Susan Rose
A recently formed organization, the Secular Coalition for America (SCA), has invited the American Ethical Union (AEU) to become a member organization. The Bylaws of the SCA state that member organizations shall “be committed to some rational and ethical version of nontheism.” The President of SCA, Herb Silverman, and the Chair of its Advisory Board, Woody Kaplan, attended the May AEU Board meeting to discuss the purpose, mission, and goals of the SCA and to answer any questions about the rights and obligations of member organizations. The SCA’s bylaws state that members “reap the primary benefit of enabling and strengthening the existence of the first full-time secular lobbying organization in Washington. Additionally, member organizations have access to lists of SCA contacts willing to share their information, publicity on the SCA’s website and materials, and access to collaborative tools and initiatives undertaken by the member organizations. In return the SCA has reasonably high expectations of member organizations.”
The AEU Board had a comprehensive and lengthy discussion at that meeting, and certainly did not have any unanimity of opinion as to whether AEU should agree to join. The Board did believe that such a decision should not be made without first having a wider discussion among the National Leaders Council (NLC) members, subsequently among the broader membership of the movement, and culminating with a proposal to be voted on at the AEU Assembly. In October and November, the NLC, the Presidents Council, and the board each endorsed the idea of AEU joining the SCA. In January, Past President Arnold Fishman, Executive Director Katharine Archibald, and Treasurer Ron Solomon (who has recently assumed the role of SCA Treasurer) attended the SCA board meeting where AEU membership in the coalition was tentatively approved, pending the decision of the upcoming assembly.
Most members of the Ethical Movement agree that facilitating its growth is of considerable importance, and increasing our public visibility is one way to do that. Joining together with like-minded organizations would provide such an opportunity. Naturally, there is always concern about how like-minded a particular organization is, and when its name and those of some of its member organizations include certain words that have positive or negative connotations for some of our members, we should try to consider all the pros and cons.
Regardless of the ultimate decision, we should utilize the discussion process itself as an avenue to explore some of the deeper values, beliefs, and feelings of our own professional and lay leadership and membership. It is undeniable that words such as “secular” and “atheist” are anathema to some of us, as are the words “humanist” and even “religious” to others of us. Our challenge is to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of joining the SCA while tending to the nuances of language and hopefully not letting them be determinative.
As stated in its brochure, the mission of the SCA “is to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all.” The cover of the brochure states that the SCA is the “first national lobbying organization representing the interests of…Atheists Humanists Freethinkers Americans.” Noting that nontheism is prominent in the coalition’s bylaws and inside the brochure, we have requested that they add “Nontheists” to the list on the cover the next time they reprint the brochure.
As mentioned above, the SCA has expectations for member organizations. One is that each will contribute 1% of its annual budget to the coalition, although financial contributions may be offset by voluntary and/or in-kind support. Even though we are in a time of austere and sometimes deficit AEU budgets, it seems that we could not possibly find a more effective way of having an effective voice on Capitol Hill in the area of church-state separation for approximately $5,000 per year. You can see exactly what the coalition has been advocating by checking the website www.secular.org. Arguably one of the SCA’s most important achievements was having US Congressman Pete Stark (D-Ca) openly acknowledge his nontheism as a result of the coalition’s contest to find the highest-ranking elected official to publicly self-identify as such.
One concern that we must have is about the restrictions on lobbying activity that are imposed by the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). The AEU, and most members societies and fellowships, are incorporated as IRC §501(c)(3) religious organizations. As a practical matter, religious organizations are prohibited from devoting more than about 5% of their activities to lobbying activities. The SCA already has a member organization which is incorporated as a religion, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which is thus subject to the same strictures. It is unlikely that we would ever be in a position to provide enough support to the SCA to make this limitation a problem, but it is nevertheless something to be aware of.
Another issue is that the SCA has one or more member organizations which are overtly anti-religious, but they (and the others which have joined) have reached the conclusion that supporting the SCA is important in the furtherance of their individual missions regardless of their respective differences. This is the position that we hope to reach significant agreement on within the Ethical Movement, leading to a positive decision at the assembly that AEU join the coalition.
If you want to know more about the SCA, please check its website, or e-mail Ron Solomon at habanero144atyahoo.com with any specific questions.
See the SCA website at www.secular.org for more information about the coalition and the most up-to-date listing of its members.