Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was religion or non-religion with regards to family as well as yourself growing up?
Andrew Seidel: There wasn’t a whole lot of organized, coerced religion in my household. There was encouraged investigation: go out there and go to temple with your Jewish friends, go to church with your Christian friends, go to catholic Mass with your catholic friends and see if anything strikes your fancy.
It became pretty obvious early on that they couldn’t all be right, so the most obvious explanation was that they were all wrong; it was a freethinking upbringing. We did the fun stuff at Christmas. We did go to church occasionally.
We did the fun parts of Easter. We did away with the churchy side of things. Our big family tradition was watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It was not a reverent household [Laughing].
Jacobsen: [Laughing] You went to Tulane University to earn a degree in neuroscience and environmental science as well as law school there graduating in 2009. The focus was environmental law.
You also went to the University of Amsterdam for human rights and international law. Can you clarify for the audience and me what was the transition there from the work or the studies in neuroscience and environmental science into human rights and international law?
Seidel: I think they are all connected. I was positive when I was younger that I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to do ER surgery, trauma surgery, maybe pediatric trauma. I was really interested in that.
I discovered that neuroscience was a major at school; it was so fascinating because it was cutting-edge. I remember this vividly. A professor came into class and said, “So, it turns out all of the stuff we did last two weeks is all wrong. We found this out in the last just recently.”
Seidel: It was so fascinating and was something you could sink your teeth into. I did all the pre-med requirements. I even took organic chemistry, which is the make or break class for pre-med for people here in the States. I also did a lot of work in the medical field. My summers I spent working in hospitals. I was the lowest on the totem pole. I was a nurse’s aide, changing diapers and so on. I loved the work, but noticed the higher up on the ladder that you got then the less time you actually spent helping and interacting with people.
Of course, the doctors diagnose and so on, but they spend the least amount of time with the patients. The EMT stuff I did was really great, driving around in an ambulance. After a while, I became a bit disenchanted with the medical field, but I still wanted to help people.
I ended up picking up a double major. But in between undergraduate and Law school, I was doing Grand Canyon tour out in Arizona. I had a number of people in my tours who were environmental lawyers who wanted to help people and had a cause.
They encouraged me to do environmental law because it is so cool. I never thought about law school while in undergrad. The first time I ever thought about it was when I graduated in ’04. I was selected for jury duty. I ended up being jury foreman on a murder trial. I was a 22-year-old and I remember this very vividly. It was in Houston, my permanent address during school.
The defendant or the accused was black. The judge said, “Go back in the room and select a foreman and then come back out.” We went in and theis guy stood up. He was a typical white male executive from downtown, maybe 60 or 62. He stood up and said, “I think we know what the outcome of this given what that guy looks like.” It was something like that.
Jacobsen: Holy moly.
Seidel: It was basically “he’s black therefore, he’s guilty.” What?! What? He made a speech about why we should elect him foreman, which was basically “you should elect me because I have done this before. We know he is guilty.”
I forgot what I said, but I got up and gave a speech. I became the jury foreman. Everyone voted for me. We got the case three weeks later and everyone was in the jury room debating. By the end of the trial,my fellow jurors said, “You should go to law school.” That was the first time I thought about it. It had been in the back of my mind since then.
When I started doing the Grand Canyon tours and getting more and more interested in environmental protection and helping causes that can’t help themselves, such as protected lands [Laughing], they can’t help themselves.
You need people out there willing to help protect those who can’t protect themselves. Down the road, I came to an inflection point in my career. I was set up in Colorado to build an environmental law practice. It would have been a pretty big for the state and for the firm I was at. But I also had this opportunity to work at FFRF. I was talking with my little sister, “I am really passionate about First Amendment stuff. But I went to school for the environmental stuff. I know it far better.”
She said, “Where will you make a bigger impact?” It was probably one of the most important questions I have ever been asked. There are thousands, thousands, of lawyers doing fantastic work on the environment.
You probably know better than most Americans how bad we are at combatting climate change. But it is hard to say with being another one of probably 10,000 lawyers out there that I would have had a big impact. But I know every attorney doing the work I do now. Most are in the office here. There are probably 15 of us. I am having a bigger impact here than I would get by working in the environmental field. If somebody asked me about my dream job, this is it. I am doing it.
It has always been about protecting those who can’t protecting themselves and fighting for those who aren’t able to fight for themselves. That is what I wanted to do with my career. I wanted to do something bigger than myself.
I went where I would be most effective and it turns out I enjoy it the most. If you asked me to create my dream job, it would be my job now. Though with a bigger paycheck.
Jacobsen: What do you see as some of the more pertinent issues ongoing with regards to freedom from religion in the United States?
Seidel: I think the biggest issue we’re facing is a very clear attempt to redefine religious liberty. Historically, religious liberty in this country has meant you can believe whatever you want and you have the freedom to act on that belief to a certain extent, but you do not get to use that belief as an excuse to impose on others or violate the rights of others.
The idea of religious freedom has never been used as a license to violate the rights of others under our constitutional system. That is a shift that you’re seeing happening pretty rapidly here. The first big warning signs for people was the Hobby Lobby decision in 2014 out of the Supreme Court.
The next big case that will or very well could redefine religious liberty is the Masterpiece Cakeshop case that the Supreme Court has right now. It is really shifting the way we think of and conceive religious liberty.
It is turning it from something considered a shield to a sword to impose on others. To me, that is the biggest issue we face right now. A lot of people don’t realize what is happening; and they won’t understand until it is too late. We have been sounding the alarm here at the FFRF for more than a decade. The very first warning was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was back in the 90s.
The one other thing you’re seeing happen more lately is government funding of religion. Historically, in this country, that has been a bright line that does not get crossed. You are seeing it happen more and more with vouchers for private religious schools. FEMA or the Federal Emergency Management Agency here in the States just switched its policy to start funding the repair of houses of worship.
That is the first time in the US where the government will pay for that. In 1785, the Virginia Legislature passed the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Jefferson wrote that law and James Madison pushed that through the legislature.
In it, Thomas Jefferson said, “It is sinful and tyrannical,” that is the quote, “sinful and tyrannical” to force somebody to support a house of worship that they don’t agree with. You go from “sinful and tyrannical” to these places of worship saying they have a right to feed out of the public trough.
The Supreme Court did not even bother to analyze that bright line rule in the Trinity Lutheran case that came down last term. So that’s the other big issue right now.
And I think you’re seeing both of those issues because our nation has done such a good job of keeping State and Church separate that most people don’t have a good understanding of how violative of their rights it is to have the government rebuild a church with their taxpayer funds.
They haven’t experienced that religious coercion and that theocracy; so, they don’t get it. There is a bit of complacency, but I think we are going to see that change if we see these changes go through.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Andrew.
Image Credit: Freedom From Religion Foundation.