Interview with Zenaido Quintana – Chair & Acting Executive Director, Secular Coalition for Arizona & Secular Communities for Arizona

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Zenaido Quintana is the Chair and Acting Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona & Secular Communities for Arizona. Here we talk about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Zenaido Quintana: Born in Phoenix, Arizona to working class, Catholic Mexican immigrant parents.

Spanish was my first language but all my formal education was in English, I was fortunate to have outstanding public education teachers throughout primary grades and a couple of great ones in high school.

Raised in home that observed Catholic rituals and traditions with a devout mother and observant but not particularly devout father.  Had one brother and five sisters, family was loving and close with normal strains of economic limitations. 

I was first member of my family to go to university, educated as a Chemical Engineer. Never a believe, even in my youth. 

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Quintana: Chemical Engineering BS. Voracious reader, loved classical literature and history, continuing student of Greek philosophy kindled in college.  

Jacobsen: As the Chair and Acting Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona and of the Secular Communities for Arizona, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Quintana: Secular Coalition for Arizona was founded in 2011 with a goal of lobbying the Arizona legislature for secular public policies, at first we tried to do it as part-time amateurs to little effect so we decided to professionalize our lobbying.

That means we had to find donors, hire an experienced lobbyist, and marshal support from organizations that support secular government. The non-theistic organizations joined us so that we could truthfully say we represented thousands of active constituents.

Our leadership team is responsible for all the compliance, governance and programmatic issues that arise from managing American 501(C) 3 (educational with tax deductible donations) and 501(c)4 (lobbying without tax benefits) non-profit companies. 

Jacobsen: What seems like the positives and the negatives of religion to you?

Quintana: Primary positives are that at their best they can organize for humanitarian and charitable causes, at the personal level faith can provide inspiration and comfort in adversity.

Chief negatives are erroneous teachings, rampant corruption, abuses covered by a false mantle of moral authority, and willfully ignorant opposition to scientific progress. 

Jacobsen: In terms of the ways in which the secular organizations have been opposed in Arizona, socially and legally, how have they been opposed? Who has opposed them? What has been effective means by which to combat them?

Quintana: Organized religion, particularly evangelical Christians have always used scripture to justify discrimination and oppression.

Evangelical lobbying groups such as Center for Arizona Policy and Alliance Defending Freedom have been very effective in co-opting politicians to legislate laws that provide preferences for Christian believers.

In the beginning Secular Coalition for Arizona was painted as a bunch of angry gays and atheists, we have refused to be marginalized by embracing all secular government supporters, of any belief system. 

We have instead painted the opposition as religious extremists who are anti-Constitutional. We have had speakers, including clergy, from many Christian and non-Christian denomination deliver secular invocations, in lieu of opening prayer at legislative sessions.

We did the first one about six years ago with outcries from many legislators, last year we did 18 including some by clergy and some that we did not even help with. 

One of our best initiatives, which we started in response to our legislators initiating a second weekly”Bible studies” program, a lunch-time voluntary program presented to legislators.

Every week we hold a “Secular Studies” program where we bring in specialists on topics that our legislators should be focused on, e.g. LBGTQ and Women’s reproductive rights, improving public education, combating poverty and homelessness, etc.

After a short presentation we facilitate discussions among the legislators. This is a unique program that is applauded by all legislators that attend it. 

Jacobsen: As we move into 2019, what are some of the important ways in which to work with other secular organizations for the advancement of social and legal conditions more conducive towards secularism in the United States?

Quintana: At the local level Secular Coalition for Arizona does an effective job of lobbying in behalf of all our constituent organizations, which include local Chapters of most of the National Secular and non-theistic organizations.

They are all either unincorporated meet-up groups or educational 501(c)3 groups. I believe Secular Coalition for Arizona remains the only state level Secular lobbying organization with a professional lobbyist.

We now have several openly non-theistic legislators and are focused on flipping one of the state houses so that we can be more effective in introducing legislation that reverses some of the many years of gains by the religious right. 

Jacobsen: What are some of the more important social and community activities of the secular in Arizona? Can you also recommend any secular authors for those more interested in more than a lay understanding of secularism?

Quintana: Secular Coalition for Arizona sponsors several events to which we invite all individuals and groups that support Secular public policies, as a former President and ongoing Board member of ACLU of Arizona, I always include the Arizona ACLU affiliate in all our events.

They have rightly increased in influence due to their aggressive legal actions against the Constitutional transgressions of our new administration.

Our major events are our Secular Day at the Capitol where we arrange presentations on secular topics and visits with legislators for our constituents. At the end of each legislative session we hold Happy Hours to honor our “Secular Stars”, legislators that went above and beyond the call of duty to aid our causes.

We have held these events for the last four years and have gone from two or three honorees to eight last year. Just before the start of the legislative session we hold a Secular Summit” to bring in the leadership from our constituent organizations to analyze and prioritize the issues arising in the coming legislative session. 

In the last year Secular Communities for Arizona has helped several of our constituent organizations organize memorials, tribute dinners and other fundraising events and we are currently leading the restart of the local chapters for two National organizations that went dormant due to the death of one of our local secular leaders. 

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Quintana: We welcome everyone to attend our events, people who want to commit significant time to making a difference in pursuit of secular public policies should contact me about joining our Board or one of our committees. The current National situation has made it difficult for local groups like ours to raise funds.

Donations to Secular Coalition for Arizona (non-tax deductible) and Secular Communities for Arizona (tax deductible) can be made by sending checks to Secular AZ, P.O. Box 19258, Phoenix, AZ 85005. Or on our website: www.Secularaz.org Other information may be requested via email at:info@secularaz.org

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Quintana: Our current administration has cynically embraced the agenda of the Evangelical Christian denominations and dog whistled approvals to white supremacists. Many of their abuses continue the long tradition of oppression of religious and non-believing minorities. 

But the tide is turning and more and more of the youth of our country are seeking tangible improvements in their lives and in this world. We are pleased to play a modest part in aiding their enlightenment.  

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

Quintana:  Thank you, Scott. It was a pleasure to share our story with you and your readers. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

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