Interview with Monica Miller – Senior Counsel, AHA Appignani Humanist Legal Center

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Monica Miller is Senior Counsel for the American Humanist Association in the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. Here we have a chat, enjoy.

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background – geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?

Monica Miller: I grew up in a non-religious household in Northern California. My mom is “spiritual” but not tied to any denomination and my dad is generally agnostic. That said, my sister and I were put in a nearby Catholic school (a beautiful school in Sleepy Hollow, Marin) from pre-K through eighth grade, which I started to resent around middle school but am now grateful for the experience, as I think it helped shape my atheist views.  My parents agreed to let me go to a public high school. I took an elective course at our community college on world religions and it was there I discovered I was definitely an atheist. It wasn’t until college I learned about humanism.

Jacobsen: Graduating from Pitzer College in 2008, and from Columbia University in 2009 with a MPA in environmental science and policy, and cum laude from Vermont Law School (2012). What have been the personal and professional benefits from this in work advancing humanism?

Miller: Humanism teaches that we must use science and reason to solve our world’s problems. I’ve always been an animal rights advocate (deciding to go vegetarian by third grade) and now I work for the only civil rights organization in the country that is using litigation to secure legal rights for nonhuman animals (rather than animal welfare). (The Nonhuman Rights Project). I’m fortunate to be able to work for both the NhRP and the AHA. During my senior year at Pitzer College, I took a first-in-its-kind course, “Sociology of Secularism,” taught by Phil Zuckerman. Now Pitzer has created an entire Secularism Studies program. Through that course, I learned more about humanism and issues concerning separation-of-church-and-state. Then at Vermont Law School, I started my own Secular Legal Society student group. I later discovered American Humanist Association and my career took off!

Jacobsen: What are perennial issues and battlegrounds to maintain a solid line between church and state, or any other religious institution and state?

Miller: The most common church-state-separation violations we encounter are government religious displays (the cross, nativity scenes, Ten Commandments), and school prayers.

Jacobsen: What have been more recent, difficult battles?

Miller: The most recent battles I’ve been fighting have been over two giant government Christian cross displays, one in Pensacola, Florida and one in Bladensburg, Maryland. The Florida District Court ruled in our favor, and ordered that the cross be removed. The City has appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit.  In the Maryland case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled in our favor, and the county is talking about trying to take the case to the Supreme Court. I do not believe they’ll be successful, as the federal courts have been virtually unanimous in finding government cross displays unconstitutional. I also recently filed a petition for certiorari in the Supreme Court asking it to take our case challenging school prayers in Texas.

Jacobsen: Women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, in America are under direct, and indirect, attack. How can grassroots activists, and legal professionals, fight to maintain those new and fragile rights from the historic norm of religious violations of women’s bodies?

Miller:  From a legal standpoint, we support the efforts of Planned Parenthood and stand ready to file or co-sign friend-of-court (amicus) briefs in their cases. So far, we haven’t had to get involved but are prepared to do so.  And obviously, we (AHA), joined the Women’s March last January.  Grassroots activists can also support the AHA’s Feminist Humanist Alliance. The Feminist Humanist Alliance is a multi-issue movement powered by and for women, transpeople, and genderqueer people to fight for social justice.

Jacobsen: What are non-humans are non-human rights applied to most often? How can people get involved, even donate to, organizations and individuals fighting for their rights?

Miller: Right now, at least in our country, nonhuman animals have no rights. Despite the commonly used term “animal rights,” animals are considered mere “things” under the law and are therefore not considered rights-bearers. At the Nonhuman Rights Project, we are trying to change this, at least for autonomous animals (such as chimpanzees, orcas, and elephants). You can support our work here: https://secure.everyaction.com/w968uwjsAUK2ommJxs0LHg2 and learn more about our work here: https://www.nonhumanrights.org/who-we-are/

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Miller: Thank you for the interview!

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time today, Monica.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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