Lobby group takes on Christian-based center
By Mary K. Reinhart The Republic | azcentral.com Sat Dec 22, 2012 10:43 PM
In recent years, the conservative Center for Arizona Policy has been one of the most successful lobbying organizations in state politics, winning passage of far-reaching abortion restrictions and religion-focused bills.
But a growing atheist lobbying group is taking on the Christian-based center and its well-connected president, Cathi Herrod, and aims to create a higher profile at the Legislature next session.
Serah Blain, executive director of the Secular Coalition of Arizona, said the state is the first in the nation to have a full-time legislative lobbyist representing a “non-theistic” organization.
The lobbying group now represents 17 secular organizations, many of whom Blain said were motivated by their anger over recent legislation, including new laws limiting abortion and contraception coverage.
“They just really took things too far,” Blain said of Herrod and lawmakers. “A lot of people who under normal circumstances would not be working together have become interested in coalition work to stop their reign of terror.”
In addition to pushing back against Center for Arizona Policy bills, Blain hopes to promote two measures at the Legislature next session: an Oregon-style death-with-dignity bill and a proposal to teach science-based sex education in public schools. Both bills have been introduced over the years but rarely have received hearings.
And she is working to organize non-religious people in communities around the state who may be unaware just how many of them are out there. During the fall, Blain held a series of “secular values” town halls to draw people into the coalition, whose members include local chapters of the Humanist Society, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Secular Student Alliance.
“In order to have any efficacy in politics, we’re going to have to form some groups and start building communities,” she said.
A study released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that people with no religious affiliation make up the third-largest group worldwide, after Christians and Muslims. About 16 percent of people in the U.S. say they are religiously unaffiliated.
Herrod did not return calls seeking comment. The Center for Arizona Policy’s website says the Legislature has passed 114 bills supported by the center since 1995.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, said the Republican-controlled Legislature is a socially and fiscally conservative body and that has aligned with the Center for Arizona Policy’s objectives. But the bills backed by the center aren’t injecting religion into politics, she said.
Lesko said her objective was to get government out of religion when she sponsored legislation that allowed religious-affiliated companies to eliminate contraception coverage for their employees.
“The government was imposing a mandate and I allowed some organizations to opt out of that mandate,” she said. “There was some kind of thought that we were intruding on people’s lives. In my legislation, I wanted to do the opposite.”
Blain said the center’s lobbying activities could run afoul of its tax-exempt status. The coalition and other groups this year filed a formal complaint with the IRS.
The secular coalition is registered as 501(c)4 political advocacy organization, which means their donations are taxed. The Center for Arizona Policy is a 501(c)3, so donations are tax-deductible, but the center is prohibited from supporting political candidates and is subject to limits on lobbying.
For more information about the Secular Coalition for Arizona, call 602-363-8018 or go to