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Over the past four years, Nebraska State Senator Megan Hunt has been one of the more sensible, progressive voices in her state legislature. The openly atheist lawmaker has called out conservative Christians who rejected comprehensive sex education and helped defeat an extreme abortion ban this past summer.

While her non-theism has caught the attention of plenty of atheists—Hunt is receiving the “Champion of the First Amendment” award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation at their annual convention later this month—she has always maintained that she’s a public servant who happens to be an atheist, not a lawmaker who wants to use her platform to promote her personal views.

She’s now running for re-election for the first time and she spoke with OnlySky about her first term in office, what it’s like to fight Christian nationalism from the front lines, and what she hopes to accomplish in the future. (These statements have been condensed and edited for clarity.)

On being an atheist in public office

It’s not something that I lead with. But if people ask me about it, I’m happy to talk about what it means to me and my journey. Everybody, whether you’re Buddhist or Muslim or Catholic or evangelical or a non-believer, everybody has a faith journey in their life. I was raised Catholic. I have friends who are of all faiths and all faith backgrounds. I think probably most people grew up in a faith tradition that they’ve either questioned, or left, or been influenced by something else and kind of integrated into their beliefs in some way.

What I’m describing to people as a non-believer is actually the same type of experience that most people have, which is just a journey on their faith to figure out what kind of worldview makes the most sense for them. That they feel like they can make the most impact and do the most good with in their communities. And that’s what people relate to. They know what that’s like.

The importance of religious diversity in politics

I’ve been accused of wanting to get rid of the Christian faith or wanting to get religious people out of politics. But what I really want is more representation. I obviously don’t care if Christians get elected, I think that’s great. I would like to see more Jewish people get elected. In Nebraska, we’ve never had a Jewish state senator. We’ve never had a Muslim state senator. And that is where I really think we’re missing an opportunity for representation. Because when elected bodies look like the people they represent, they work better for them.

I’m giving representation to non believers, but there are still large swaths of people out there who don’t have an elected official who understands their faith experience. And I think that we lose something with that, as far as being nervous about running or putting yourself out there, which is what people need to do in order for us to finally get more representation in government. 

Why many people don’t want to run for office

I think normal people don’t want to run for office. They see the cost to run for the legislature—it’s getting into, like, half a million dollars. It’s a crazy amount of money you need to win one of these races.

In Nebraska, we make $12,000 a year in the legislature for basically full-time work, and that turns a lot of people off. You have to be either independently wealthy, or you have to have another job, or you have to have a spouse or a partner to support you. So that cuts a lot of people out of the running.

It’s really the people on the extremes who feel like they have the most to lose politically, and that’s a huge motivating factor, to get them to want to run for office. So if you’re on the far right, and you think that Critical Race Theory is taking over our schools, and trans people are assaulting everyone in the bathroom, and you have these very insane conspiratorial beliefs, you’re more motivated to run for office. That’s just snowballed over the last couple of decades.

There’s just very, very little incentive for moderate, normal, professional, everyday folks to say, “Yeah, look at what’s going on in politics. I think I’d like to be a part of that.” No one in their right mind would think that!

I don’t think it’s a voter problem. I think that this is a mistake that parties make. They say, “Oh, we need to register people to vote. We need to make sure people are voting. There needs to be a focus on getting out the vote.” But we don’t have enough of a focus on candidate recruitment, and building a pipeline of people who are rational, reasonable, and evidence-focused. Representatives who can actually understand what normal people go through and who aren’t running for office just because they’re motivated by some extremist view or some conspiracy theory, because that’s what we’re seeing more and more nationwide.

How she ended up running for public office

I was one of those people I described, where I look at how government’s working, and I say, “I’d rather frickin’ die than have anything to do with that dumpster fire.” I’ve been a business owner in my district for just about 20 years. I ran a clothing boutique and a stationery shop. I’ve just been a shop girl my whole career. And I’m a single parent. I’ve got a son who’s in seventh grade. I’ve just lived in the neighborhood here for a long time, and a lot of people know me.

In 2015, I was working with a group of activists and advocates to update our sex education curriculum in our public schools here in Omaha where I live. At the time, the curriculum hadn’t been updated [in a long time]. Since then, we’ve had an increasingly out and increasingly depressed and suicidal LGBTQ population. We’ve had the AIDS epidemic and a huge increase in STDs and STIs. We’ve had the internet and everything that comes along with that. So in some cases, there were kids getting the same sex education that their grandparents had gotten.

At the time, in my county, we also had some of the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the entire country. So I was part of a group that knew that to reduce those numbers and make a real public health impact, as well as just prepare these kids better for life, they needed age-appropriate, medically accurate, research-based sex education.

It was very, very difficult. But we did. It was very controversial, but we did it, and the rates of STDs in our community started to go down. There hasn’t been like a study—I don’t know if there’s causation or correlation there—but I’ll take it. 

After that happened, I started noticing that people were seeing me as a political leader, and not just as a business leader. So I started asking folks, you know, if I ran for office, would you support me? Everywhere I turned, everyone I talked to was just nothing but supportive.

I ran for office, and in 2018, I won by a landslide. 

Her proudest legislative accomplishments over the past four years

I’ve passed several of my priority bills. In Nebraska, every senator gets to pick a priority bill, which is kind of like their favorite bill. Everybody takes it a little bit more seriously. There’s no rule about it, but it’s just a norm that we have.

Last year, I passed a bill to allow caregivers to apply for unemployment. So people who have to leave work because they have a sick loved one or a sick child or parent, they’re eligible now in Nebraska to apply for unemployment to care for that family member.

I introduced and passed the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) bill that we have in Nebraska, which is related to college athletics, and it’s letting college athletes make money from their reputation, basically, which they weren’t allowed to do under NCAA rules before that.

I’ve really led the charge on expanding food access and [addressing] food insecurity, working on expanding SNAP, working on expanding housing assistance.

Every time we have a bill, I try to make sure that we put a non-discrimination clause in there so that it doesn’t affect people based on their race, sex, nationality, all of that, but also gender expression and sexual orientation.

Really, I think some of the most important things I’ve done have been defense more than offense. In April, we defeated a full abortion ban in Nebraska, which shocked everybody. Nobody can believe that we defeated this in Nebraska. But you know, I filibustered that bill for 8+ hours. And that’s what it took to kill it in the end.

So it’s really a lot of that floor work and strategy and knowing the rules, knowing procedurally what can be done in order to stave off some of the worst things that are happening.

How advocating for comprehensive sex education may have backfired

We’re experiencing blowback that I have to really consider because of this attempt we had statewide in the last couple of years to have sex education required in schools. This is not “sex lessons.” This is medically accurate, age-appropriate, research-based education about biology. This is all it is.

After we tried that and failed, so many people ran for office whose single issue was keeping this out of schools, putting God back into schools, putting Bible-based learning back into our education, and they’re going to succeed because normal people aren’t running.

This freaks me out a little bit. You have to think, “Did we do more harm by trying to push this issue statewide because we activated so many people who are going to take us so far backwards in a way that’s going to be so difficult to undo?”

This is something I struggle with. This is all part of advocacy. Activism is the strategy of “What can we accomplish? When is it the right time? Where and what will happen if we fail?” Because the goal always has to be harm reduction. It has to be in this case. Just keeping these kids safe. Making sure that LGBTQ youth are in affirming spaces. Making sure that kids who have medical situations are supported. This is what I really have to think about going forward. It’s tough.

What concerns her right now

“Brain drain” is probably my number one issue facing Nebraska.

Young professionals, all the way up to retirement-age people, tell us all the time what they want the state to look like. They want public transportation. They want affordable housing. They want an inclusive and welcoming community for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, for immigrants and migrants and new Nebraskans. They want elected officials, they want a governor, they want a legislature that will take an evidence and research-based approach to policy and not be reactionary. Not be catering toward the far right wing of the Republican Party.

Red states are getting so much more conservative. But this is actually not what people want. This doesn’t reflect the actual political identity of most people in the United States. And no, I’m not saying they’re progressive. I’m saying they’re not far right extremists. But to look at our elected officials, you’d think that that’s what everybody is. That’s why the rest of the world makes fun of us. That’s why the blue states make fun of us, as they think we’re all these backward hick people. Because we look intolerant, not because we’re farmers—farmers are amazing. Not because we’re religious—Christians are wonderful people—it’s because we’re intolerant. That’s what makes us the laughingstock. That’s what makes it so hard for people to take us seriously and what makes young professionals look at our communities and say, “That’s not somewhere I could ever live.”

I know personally many people who have been offered jobs at our universities. We have an amazing flagship land grant university system in Nebraska. Really, really good college. Good university system. But it’s hard to recruit people to come teach here. Because they go, “Oh, I got an offer from Nebraska, and Oregon, and California, and Illinois. And guess what? Nebraska is at the very bottom of my list, because I want to live in a place that is not intolerant, that doesn’t ban abortion, that doesn’t have unprecedented discrimination against people of color.

These are things that lawmakers have to take seriously.

I mean, I live here by choice. I live here on purpose, I could move if I wanted to, but I really love Omaha. It’s one of those cities where people visit and then they go, “Oh my God, Omaha is actually really cool! I had no idea that it was like this!”

On marijuana

We don’t even have legalized medical cannabis in Nebraska. Honestly, I think that medicinal cannabis and adult use is going to be legalized nationwide before we get it done here in Nebraska, which is really depressing, because we’re surrounded by all kinds of states that have legalized it, and we have decades of evidence from other states who have had it legal for a very long time. Obviously, the benefits are there, and I completely support it.

What troubles me is the lack of racial equity that has been given thought to in these policies. I support legalizing cannabis for medical and adult use, but I also support allowing people with cannabis convictions and marijuana convictions to clear their records, or modify their records, and possibly get some kind of restitution for their time served.

I smoked pot when I was a teenager like so many people did. I’m almost 38. I have, of course, used cannabis in my life, legally and illegally. But when you look at who gets in the carceral system for illegal drug use, it’s not people that look like me. That’s a huge problem.

We have to reconcile our failed war on drugs by legalizing cannabis and also trying to make some kind of restitution or bring some kind of justice to people who have been unfairly targeted for generations for drug convictions.

On communicating with your elected representatives

You have to be pestering your elected officials. You have to be talking to them. You have to bother them. Go to their office and follow them when they go get their coffee—this is what people have to do more and more of, and not be afraid to do things like that.

Seriously, there is no wrong way to contact your elected official. Don’t be that person that’s writing an email and sitting there for 30 minutes going, “What do I say?”

Don’t freakin’ worry about it. Just call them. Leave a voicemail. It can be three sentences. Email them. It could be three sentences. Get with a group who’s doing some advocacy work and give them 15 minutes of your time to volunteer or half an hour. There’s no wrong way. You don’t need to second guess your method. You just can’t stop. You just have to keep it up. 

Listen to the full podcast episode:

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.