Secular Day at the Capitol

Some participants from 2017’s Secular Day at the Capitol event.

On Monday, people from all across the state gathered in Phoenix for the third annual Secular Day at the Capitol, for a day of advocacy and education, meetings with legislators, tours of the Capitol and keeping up-to-date on the most important church-state separation issues facing Arizona.

The event was organized by the Secular Coalition for Arizona (SCA).

This year’s featured speakers included Larry T. Decker, executive director for the Secular Coalition for America, and Geoffrey Clark, professor emeritus of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. Clark’s presentation at the event, “Darwin and the Demon-Haunted World,” coincided with International Darwin Day, marking the 209th anniversary of the famous scientist’s birth.

The SCA is a tax-exempt social welfare organization focused on representing Arizona’s non-theistic community to state political leaders, in addition to protecting minority religions from discriminatory practices and policies, explained Tory Roberg, the director of government affairs for the SCA.

“Religion belongs in our communities,” Roberg said. “People have free choice over where they pray and how they worship, or the freedom not to. We have seen a lot of things happen here at the state Capitol where folks who don’t follow the majority religion get beat up — not beat up literally — but get chastised or ridiculed.

“What we’re trying to do is create a secular government, which we believe is government for all, including all the minority religions and people who don’t believe in anything at all.”

The SCA represents a number of groups — which it dubs its “liaised organizations” — including the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle of Tucson (SHJC).

“Every week, I have a phone call with all of our liaised organizations where we talk about what’s happening at the state Capitol,” Roberg explained. “I bring up legislative issues and I ask the liaised organizations to give me feedback about what they think the Secular Coalition should be doing.”

Kent Barrabee, vice president of SHJC, was excited to travel to Phoenix with a handful of other group members for the event. For Barrabee, the most important issue for the SCA in 2018 is opposing an Arizona law that allows residents to receive tax credits for donations made to school tuition organizations, which Barrabee believes is being used to “re-insert Christianity into education.” The Jewish Tuition Organization, representing six Jewish schools in the Valley, also benefits from the tax credits.

Zenaido Quintana, chair of the SCA board of directors, said other priorities for the SCA include advocating for women’s reproductive rights and ensuring the continuation of both secular invocations before legislative sessions and the Secular Studies program at the state capitol. Quintana said the program was the first of its kind in the U.S. He noted that Rabbi Emily Langowitz, a rabbi for Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, gave a secular invocation a few weeks ago.

“We bring topic experts from around the state to facilitate discussions,”

Quintana said, explaining the Secular Studies program. “Legislators from both sides of the aisle and in both chambers have told us how grateful they are that we do that because those kinds of discussions are just not held on the floor.

“We’ve tried to essentially focus on the equal treatment of all faiths and philosophies and, to the extent that we can, to get them extracted as a consideration for public policies.” JN