- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Congress has earned a failing grade from a secular advocacy group that, nonetheless, expresses optimism that lawmakers are learning to discern the sometimes blurred line between church and state.

Using an A-to-F scale, the Secular Coalition For America graded the House and the Senate, awarding 42 As and 315 Fs among the 113th Congress‘ 535 members.

“No, we’re not surprised,” said Kelly Damerow, the coalition’s director of federal affairs. “But we’re also seeing some hopeful things come out of it. Even though there are obviously Fs, we’re seeing more As and Bs than we have in the past.”

The coalition — which advocates for “non-theistic Americans” — awarded points to lawmakers based to their votes on legislation involving church-state issues. The 19 bills and amendments ranged from the Military Religious Freedom Protection Act to the Freedom to Pray Act to expanding the religious exemption of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“This is mainly a tool to empower supporters, so they can show their representatives and senators a constituency is watching, that it is taking note and will hold them accountable,” Ms. Damerow said.

No one in Congress voted for every bill on the coalition’s slate, but some received perfect scores for the one or two pieces of legislation they voted on in alignment with the coalition’s goals. No Republicans earned straight As, but three Republican senators — Lisa A. Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan M. Collins of Maine — did earn straight Bs.

The coalition started its report card in 2009, focused only on the Senate.

The next report card in 2011 dealt with the House, Ms. Damerow said, likely because of the mid-term elections and the surge of tea party candidates and “new push from the religious right.”

Congress didn’t pass enough laws in 2012 to warrant a report, Ms. Damerow said. Lawmakers this year also received points for sponsoring legislation because the low number of votes would have prevented grades from being compiled for a second year, she said.

The latest report card has some pieces of legislation to celebrate and others that are cause for concern, according to the coalition.

“One of our most worrisome was on the House side, H.R. 592, FEMA Funding For Churches,” Ms. Damerow said. “That one was very straightforward. It was taxpayer money to physically build the bricks and mortar of a house of worship. It didn’t have any ambiguity, it pretty directly violated the law of separation [of church and state].”

The bill passed the House in February 2013. A similar bill in the Senate was introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, and referred to committee in July. Ms. Damerow said the legislation’s “broad support shocked us.”

Conversely, the coalition hailed the Senate’s rejection of the expansion of religious exemptions in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Bishop McNeill, political coordinator for the Center for Humanist Activism, said the Secular Coalition’s report card mirrors surveys his group has taken to study the record of congressional members and the separation of church and state.

“We’re not where we want to be,” Mr. McNeill said. “But we are seeing growth.”

A 2012 Pew Research Center study showed that the number of religious “nones” — Americans who do not identify with any specific religion — had grown from 15 percent to 20 percent in the past five years.

“Nones are becoming a huge chunk of the electorate,” Ms. Damerow said.

Congress has the obligation to represent everyone, which includes those 20 percent,” Mr. McNeill said. “Just in terms of Congress, we are seeing encouragement, to the extent there is growth.”

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