From Seed to Fruition: The Secular Coalition for Arizona
by Matt Schoenley, Founder, Vice Chair, Secular Coalition for Arizona
Over five years ago I co-founded Secular Coalition for Arizona with two smart and passionate Arizona residents, Zenaido Quintana and Serah Blain. We all had exhibited the dual express purpose to provide a voice for Arizona's nontheistic community, as well as a desire to advocate for the separation of church and state. Our main goal was to champion secular public policy to Arizona's state government.
The need was clear as the religious right, and specifically the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP), had free reign at the Arizona Capitol, untethered by public outcry. Religion, and a particularly extreme form of Christianity at that, was being enacted into secular civil law with little pushback or public attention. Citizens, who had no interest in living by Biblical and religious dogmas, including most Christians, were unknowingly being coerced to comply with a fundamentalist ideology incongruent with the way they lived their lives.
At the time no one was sticking up for separation of church and state nor working to protect secular government from a religious takeover, let alone calling out the dogmatic motivations of the religious right’s attack.
The first year, Secular AZ struggled to gain respect even among issue-aligned advocacy groups and legislators, after all, we operated as an all-volunteer organization. By the second year it was obvious that effective advocacy could not be sustained by volunteers alone, so we sought out funding from the Arizona community to hire a dedicated lobbyist to our cause. We were successful, and maybe a little bit lucky, as a very generous donor helped us start our full time lobbyist program. This was no small feat, and to this day we remain the first and only, known state-level secular group with a paid lobbyist. Once funded, our co-founder, Serah, was the obvious choice to take the inaugural job, and she did so with the perfect balance of zest and tact required to effectively forge a seat at the advocacy and public policy making table. After three years in business we had gained respect as an effective, reasonable and professional advocacy group.
Fast forward five years and five legislative sessions later from our improbable beginnings and our organization has grown exponentially along with our influence at the Capitol. Now, with our Director of Government Affairs and Lobbyist since 2013, Tory Anderson, we stand undaunted with friends on both sides of the aisle. Friendly legislators seek out our input and counsel, the media comes to us for commentary on secular matters, and we are truly a viable counter to the Center for Arizona Policy.
From humble beginnings, it amazes me to see the positive and indelible effect we have on state public policy making today. It truly heartens me to see all of the committed volunteers, supporters, growing constituency and sympathetic legislators who openly respect and advocate for secular civil government, free from religious bias and influence today.
Secular AZ is the go-to advocacy group for secularism in Arizona, and although CAP remains one of the best funded and most influential special interest groups at the Capitol, I smile with optimism at how effective and amazing our next five years will be.