Monica L. Miller works as the Legal Director and Senior Counsel at the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center and as the Executive Director of the Humanist Legal Society.
Here we talk about her current positions and the current issues for secularism in America through the American Humanist Association.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start with some brief background, so people know where you’re coming from. Although, you are an increasingly prominent name in the humanist community in North America, in the region, as well as in the legal scene for humanists.
What brought you to a humanist outlook on life and then what brought you to the form of humanist community?
Monica Miller: Great question. I think a lot of people would answer it this way, but I feel like I’ve always been a humanist. Even though I went to Catholic school growing up, I was raised in a relatively secular family. I went to parochial school but I think I’ve always been a humanist.
By college, I didn’t believe in god but didn’t have a label for what I did believe. Maybe belief is the wrong word, but I espoused the idea that we should take care of the environment, non-human animals, and other people. All the values that humanists hold I felt resonated with me as well.
Then I came upon the American Humanist Association in law school. I found an internship opening in Washington, D.C. I’d already been very interested in separation of church and state. I’d been working with attorney Michael Newdow who did the “under God” case in the U.S. Supreme Court
I just really found my niche there.
Jacobsen: At the American Humanist Association, you have 2 positions. What are those? What are some tasks and responsibilities?
Monica: It’s really one position. The title is Legal Director and Senior Counsel, our former Legal Director moved on.
I now manage our legal department. We just hired a new staff attorney, so I’m managing him as well. But as far as what I do, I litigate our cases in federal courts across the country. I had a U.S. Supreme Court case this past year so that was a big milestone for us and our legal center.
Jacobsen: What is the scope of the Humanist Legal Society now?
Miller: [Oh yeah], I’m also the Executive Director of the Humanist Legal Society, an adjunct of the AHA. It’s a networking tool for attorneys, other legal professionals, and law students who are humanists and want to engage on a more involved level than our regular members, but more on the legal side of things.
It’s fairly new. So, we’re sort of still evolving our goals, our mission, and our activities. We have an upcoming panel event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on January 13.
Jacobsen: When you’re looking at some of the legal battles that you have fought, including the Supreme Court case, recently, what were some of the outcomes? What were some of the subject matter?
Miller: The subject matter of our cases all surround church and state separation, but the actual facts of the cases differ pretty strongly. We have cases involving school prayer, graduation prayer, schools taking students to religious field trips, that kind of thing, but then we also have our fair share of display cases, which might involve a cross on government property, we’ve had two display cases in Arkansas, then we have some legislative prayer cases. Those are where the government officials are leading prayers before a meeting. We have a case in Florida involving a police-lead prayer vigil. So, it’s a diverse array of issues, but they all surround church-state separation.
Jacobsen: When you’re talking about church-state separation with school prayers, for instance, what are some of the arguments that you put forward to counter this action in public schools?
Miller: There are several. Some of the predominant reasons that the Supreme Court has found prayers problematic is the coercive aspect of it: that school children are impressionable and susceptible to both peer pressure as well as actual coercion; that parents have a constitutional right to raise their children with the religion of their choice or no religion at all. So, when there’s a prayer being given at your student’s, or your daughter’s or son’s, graduation ceremony, they feel compelled to either take part in the prayer or else protest about religion. Either way you have it-it’s coercive. But then there’s also the endorsement issue: that the government is basically putting a stamp of approval on a prayer that’s given at a government control event. Then there’s also other issues of religious entanglement and unconstitutional service, but I’d say the biggest concern is usually the coercion.
Jacobsen: When it comes to tax exemptions for various religious sectors, how does that compare for the secular communities in America?
Miller: It’s tricky. Over the years, the Supreme Court has gone back and forth on tax exemptions and its treatment of religious entities. The secular community has been feeling lately that all must have the same exemptions.That they’re parallel. The American Humanist Association, is a humanist organization, even though we don’t call ourselves a religion, we function in the same way as a real religion would in terms of our programming and outreach. But we have to file certain disclosures that churches are exempt from.
There have been lawsuits and challenges to this. They just haven’t gone very far yet.
Jacobsen: What do you think is most needed in terms of legal battles for further equality for the secular and humanist communities in America?
Miller: That’s a good question. For one, our court system is stacked against us right now. That has a lot to do with who our current president is, and we have lost cases that we absolutely should have won based on the president- solely because we had a judge that was very partial and had an agenda that was against us.
So, elections matter, I think that’s sort of step one as far as other challenges and stuff. It’s like playing whack-a-mole when it comes to putting out violations.
Miller: Trying to get one school prayer out, then the next school, we still make progress. We can set precedent that we can take to the next school. It’s usually a faster legal proceeding in the next case, but it still is something that feels kind of overwhelming.
Especially because the religious right in our country, people feel emboldened right now. Based upon who the judges are, who the president is, they feel like they can get away with more and, frankly, in a sense, they are now.
So, we have to stay vigilant and continue to bring these challenges. Even though it feels like an avalanche, you have to keep that wall of separation high in every area where it’s being breached.
Jacobsen: Different religious groups and individuals take their religions in different ways. I think that’s a truism. By implication, there will be differences in how different religious groups in America will take their particular religious views from the personal life to the public, but, in particular, the political.
In other words, they want to have their religion influence and be integral to, if not integrated into, the general political system, if not the legal system. Who are some of those denominations that are most apt to do that kind of overstretch in terms of the practice of their faith?
Miller: That’s a good question. There is a documentary on Netflix right now. I’ve only started. This has to do with a manipulative non-denominational Christian group called “The Family.”
How much influence that they have over government officials in Washington and the state government? I can’t think of a singular denomination. I can’t think of any that is particularly more egregious than the others.
Maybe, in general, it is probably the baptists in the South, but there are also baptists that very strongly support separation of church and state. So, it just depends where they’re geographically located and whatnot, but that’s been my experience.
Jacobsen: How does this impact ordinary humanists and how does this inequality impact their lives and the trajectory of the lives?
Miller: I think it affects them in smaller communities where they are the minorities, and they feel like they can’t even complain about the church-state violation because they will be a pariah in their community.
So, I think that that’s where the everyday humanists are the most affected, in small communities, rural communities.
Jacobsen: What about some of the typically more vulnerable groups? It might differ for individuals, but as groups, the LGBTI community tends to get a pretty hard wrap from fundamentalist far-right religious groups.
How does this manifest in a legal context? How is the society working against those efforts?
Miller: We’re blending together a lot more with other progressive causes and groups than we did, say, before Trump was elected. We can’t fight these battles alone and we have to join together on issues that might not be our primary issue, but it’s something that’s completely aligned with our mission. So when it comes to the Equal Rights Act and same-sex marriage and all those things we’re thinking of with those marginalized groups.
Jacobsen: In Canada, there is an increased conversation on a number of fronts about secularism and place of worship, or religion, and state separation. One of those has to do with having a single secular public school system. Another has to do with the church tax exemptions throughout the country.
Jacobsen: I note the differences between the American and the Canadian legal systems. However, there should be general heuristics, concerned humanists, and secular and free thought citizens in America could take into account for combating this sort of financial, social, and legal privilege throughout the country.
How would you think about this issue with your legal background and training and current experience in a humanist legal setting?
Miller: Great question. I know in our country it has been an issue of standing – the ability to even bring a challenge in court. If we want to challenge the clergy tax exemption, we would need a secular person to be denied tax exemption by the IRS.
That requires the IRS to audit you. Sometimes, they don’t do that. You can’t just go to our court system and bring those challenges. You have to wait until there’s the right group that has standing.
So, I don’t know if that’s the same case in Canada, but that’s always the first step, making sure that you have a group that has the ability to bring this case in court. I guess, the next thing is public awareness, making people aware that there is that sort of an inequity and get the public behind it.
Interviewer: What if municipal councils or provincial governments, collected as a whole, simply don’t want to touch the issue? I note this in some recent reports in British Columbia.
Miller: That is also a good question. I’m not sure if I have a good answer for it. I think it’s something where you definitely want to make sure you have all the support possible. But also, there needs to be some sort of campaign and public support in place to explain why it’s a problem.
The reason [local government officials] don’t want to touch it is because they’re worried that it looks like they’re against religion or against the church. Instead, they should be explaining why it’s unfair to not pass similar situated groups that are providing the same public benefits.
That they aren’t getting the same treatment or highlight some churches’ practices. I think there’s probably a way to garner public support. But from the legal standpoint, that’s sort of a different animal.
Jacobsen: All legal battles require money and time and professional networks and other forms of resources. How can individual American citizens or international organizations support the legal arm of the American Humanist Association in setting a national precedent and an international example as to the battles that can be won in church-state separation and otherwise?
Miller: Obviously, there’s giving donations to support groups like ours that bring church-state separation cases.
Frankly, if we just hear enough from our members, from people complaining, that they all sort of share the same grievance on something. We’ll, usually, pay more attention to it. Or we’ll put it up on our priority list.
I think it is just a matter of making it clear that in order to advance other secular causes like the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights, you really have to break through this church-state barrier because it’s really standing in the way of our society’s progress.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for the opportunity and your time, Monica.
Miller: My pleasure.
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.
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Image Credit: American Humanist Association/Monica Miller.