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When Emily Kinkead first ran for the Pennsylvania House in 2020, the Democratic Party wasn’t thrilled about it. That’s because she was trying to primary a Democrat who’d been in office for a decade. Despite that lack of support, she pulled out an upset over the incumbent and ran unopposed in the general election.

In her first term, the “culturally Christian” Kinkead has been a firm advocate for her district, working to get insurance money to constituents affected by landslides, address gun violence, and push for more funding for local infrastructure projects. She’s also been an advocate for more progressive policies regarding minimum wage increases, environmental concerns, and lowering childcare costs.

Kinkead spoke with OnlySky about her opposition to invocation prayers in the legislature, playing defense against Republicans in the majority, and the importance of pardoning people over marijuana possession. (These statements have been condensed and edited for clarity.)

The problem with prayer in the Pennsylvania legislature

I find that there are a lot of my colleagues, at least on the Democratic side, who, whether or not they are personally religious, are uncomfortable with the idea that we open every session day with a prayer. We want a separation of church and state, but at the same time, we have all of these traditions that we keep, that sort of forces religion into government, which should be secular.

Unless and until we end up with a Democratic majority in at least the House, I don’t think that my Republican colleagues would ever consider not starting the day with a prayer because [of] tradition. Also, a lot of their base would be potentially very upset if they if they got rid of prayer.

One of my colleagues is actually a practicing Quaker. He offers a prayer, periodically, that is literally just a moment of silence and personal reflection. I actually appreciate those when he does it, because it’s not telling anybody anything. It allows you to just reflect on whatever it is you want to reflect on, which I think is helpful to center yourself to do the work for the day.

There are certainly people on the Republican side who really believe that we should be legislating based on the Bible, which is really disturbing to me, because that is one particular religion, and one particular interpretation of that religion. That was never what we were supposed to be doing in terms of governing.

I think about the First Amendment, which provides a freedom of religion, and I think inherent in a freedom of religion is also a freedom from religion. In order to be able to have the ability to choose your own religion, you have to have the ability to be free of someone else’s religion.

Agencies targeted by Republicans

There are certain agencies that end up being the punching bag of my Republican colleagues. The Department of Environmental Protection. The Department of Human Services. Depending on the year, [it] might be the Department of Health.

It gives us the ability to craft a broader narrative. I would like to put out into the world why funding our Department of Human Services is incredibly important, because that’s the department that oversees disability payments [and] a lot of our senior programs. So being able to talk about, in detail, why we spend the money that we spend, is, I think, really helpful to get people to understand.

I know that a $42 billion budget [might seem like] crazy spending, but you get down into the nitty gritty, and people are like, “Oh, well, I wouldn’t want to cut that. And I wouldn’t want to cut that either.” And you start to be able to explain to people that, you know, yes, the government is big, but it is helping a lot of people. And it is, in fact, doing it in the most cost-effective way.

Why she’s using her role to hold agencies accountable

One of the things that I really tried to work on in that committee is, when we have budget hearings, before we start really negotiating the budget, we actually get to interview the secretaries of the various agencies and talk about why it is that they’re requesting whatever’s in their budget request.

[We can] really push them on things like “Department of Corrections, you want more funding, but you’re not allowing people to see their loved ones. Why is that? Can you explain it out loud in front of people to the public?” We get to have the hard conversations. It can be big, where you’re talking about agency policy, but it also can be small, like, “Hi, I have a constituent that I reached out to you guys about, and I never got a message back. And their issue is still pending.” I’ll get back to my desk and I have an email about this.

Look, I will publicly embarrass you if I have to write stuff down.

The importance of equitable marijuana policy

I am incredibly proud of [President Joe] Biden for [pardoning marijuana convictions], because it is far too long in coming to do that. We’ve known for over a decade that marijuana is not a Schedule I drug. It is not dangerous on par with heroin. It actually does have some medicinal qualities.

[We now have] medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. But we I don’t think we’ve gotten far enough. We have people who have professional licenses that can’t use medical marijuana because it might endanger their license. Veterans don’t have access to it, because they can’t get a prescription through the VA, because that’s federal. So there’s a number of layers of complication to accessing medical marijuana.

So we need to legalize it at the federal level. It’s taken far too long to get there.

I think the one thing that we really need to be cognizant of, though, is that all of the states that have legalized marijuana… they’ve basically seen that it is really just rich white people getting richer. I find it very ironic that [former GOP Speaker of the House] John Boehner is on the board of a [cannabis] company… making money off of selling marijuana when he was one of the biggest champions of mass incarceration…

We are still not investing in the communities that have been most devastated by the War on Drugs. If we’re going to legalize it, we need to be very, very intentional about making sure that people of color and communities of color are prioritized in the ability to have marijuana businesses, and to make sure that we’re not making weed stores look like Apple stores and benefiting largely just white people. That has been a real issue in a lot of those states.

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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.