A big Thanks to all who attended Our 2022 Rights and Religions Forum 2022
Rights and Religions Forum (RARF) Conference Program
1385 Canal St SE, Washington, DC 20003
Saturday, Oct 22, 2022
9 am to 7pm
About the 2022 RARF Conference
In a country where liberty is a cornerstone value, what happens when religious liberty impedes on the rights of the individuals who are raised to abide by religious doctrines and lack the freedom to live lives that reflect their personal values, needs and beliefs? What duty does the public have to intervene in the traditions and practices of religious groups, and how should that duty be exercised?
This year’s Rights and Religions Forum conference will examine the various mechanisms – legal, psychological, and institutional – within insular religious communities which compromise the rights of people within them.
Registration for the conference will begin at 8am on October 22nd and the conference will be held from 9am to 5pm. We will also be hosting a reception with cash bar and complimentary hors d’oeuvres immediately following closing remarks from 5pm to 7pm.
VENUE: The conference will be held in the 2nd floor Boardroom of the HQO Events (DC Water Headquarters) building. The address is 1385 Canal St SE, Washington, DC 20003.
LODGING: If you would like to book lodging to attend the conference, here is a list of surrounding hotels:
- Courtyard by Marriott Capitol Hill/Navy Yard
- Homewood Suites Washington DC Capitol-Navy Yard
- Hampton Inn & Suites Washington DC-Navy Yard
PARKING: The conference venue does NOT offer onsite parking. There are, however, several paid parking garages in the area. We highly recommend using an online parking spot reservation service (e.g. SpotHero, ParkWhiz, etc.) prior to your arrival to get the best daily rate.
METRO: The HQO Events space is an easy 10 minute walk from the Navy Yard-Ballpark Metro stop.
The Rights and Religions Forum is a 501c3 non-profit founded to create spaces and curate conversations around these often ignored and complex questions, giving – for the very first time – a voice to the oppressed and vulnerable within isolated religious communities.
Mary Byler is the Manager and Founder of The Misfit Amish, an organization dedicated to providing secular support and resources to Amish and ex-Amish survivors. As an educator and advocate for Amish children, she collaborates with other organizations and agencies to provide best practice-based resources for Amish/Plain communities and survivors. Byler also holds a Master certificate in life coaching, multiple certifications in trauma awareness, and specializes in working with survivors from cults and conservative sectarian religious groups. She is certified in social and behavioral research by the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative, and serves as a researcher and cultural advisor for the Lock Haven University study on child sexual abuse in conservative Anabaptist communities. Byler was a co-creator of a recent exhibit in Lancaster County on Amish/Plain clothing and sexual assault. She produces audio and video recordings of Amish/Plain survivor stories, with a particular focus on LGBTQ survivor stories.
A former member of the fundamentalist polygamous Mormon sect now known as FLDS, Shirlee is the Director of Operations for Cherish Families, a social service nonprofit which offers crime victim and wraparound services for people from polygamous backgrounds who need stability. She specializes in bridging the population with mainstream society and provides education for outside service providers and government agencies to facilitate cultural competence in dealing with fundamentalist community members. Shirlee lives in St. George with her children and relishes the moments when she gets to spend time with them.
Sarah Haider is an activist and writer. She has spent much of her professional life in the charitable world, co-founding two nonprofit organizations. Her work has been covered in numerous outlets, including BBC, The Economist, The Stranger and Quillette and in 2018 she was recognized as a “Freethought Heroine” by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Sara Klar is a prolific artist based in Queens, NY whose exodus from Jewish Orthodoxy at age 21 propelled her 30 year span of artmaking. In mediums of paint and multi-layered photographic
drawings, her work focuses on releasing the childhood pain she experienced during her conservative Jewish upbringing. Her art investigates how much our past environments influence and shape our present decision-making. Sara’s art has been exhibited at museums and galleries in New York City, across the US, and internationally. Her art can be viewed at: https://www.saraklar.com/.
Sarah Levin is the founder and principal at Secular Strategies, a consulting firm specialized in serving the rapidly growing community of nonreligious Americans and church-state separation policy. Sarah also worked for the Secular Coalition for America from 2013–2019 in various roles, including Director of Grassroots and Community Programs and Director of Governmental Affairs. In her personal capacity, Sarah proudly represents the secular community as a Co-Chair on the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Interfaith Council. She helped to pass a resolution at the DNC in 2019 that expressly welcomes religiously-unaffiliated voters into the party, recognizing their values and historic marginalization.
Amanda Montell is a writer, linguist, and podcast host from Baltimore, MD. She is the author of two critically acclaimed nonfiction books: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism and Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language. Amanda’s books have earned praise from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, NPR, and more. She is also the creator and co-host of the podcast, Sounds Like A Cult, which was named a best podcast of the year by Vulture, Wired, and Esquire. Amanda is currently at work on her third book The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality and is developing both of her books for television. She holds a degree in linguistics from NYU and lives in Los Angeles with her partner, plants, and pets.
Naomi Moskowitz, Director of Economic Empowerment, joined Footsteps Staff in 2021 with 15 years of experience in managing community relationships for nonprofit organizations. As a Footsteps member herself since 2013, Naomi is passionate about using her professional expertise to contribute to the Economic Empowerment team by strengthening and expanding relationships with agencies and stakeholders in order to enable members to pursue educational opportunities, find employment, and develop their careers. Naomi is also devoted to social advocacy and standing up for those who are not able to stand up for themselves. She has spent the past seven years speaking publicly about issues relating to the LGBTQ community and the OTD community, and has provided strategic planning for marketing, development, and community outreach to agencies serving those populations.
Jena is a grassroots organizer and political strategist born and raised across the western United States. She grew up Mormon and left during college, now identifying primarily as a humanist. Jena worked as the policy director for the campaign of the youngest candidate for the Utah State House of Representatives and currently serves as board president for Girls Lobby, a nonprofit providing teenage girls with skills training to lobby at the local and state level in Utah.
Jena has a background in issue advocacy work at the state and federal level, including work with peace advocacy nonprofit Women’s Action for New Directions. In her work with Secular Strategies, she is particularly focused on political communications and digital advocacy engagement.
Lindsay was raised in Panama in the New Tribes Mission cult (now Ethnos 360) on a rural, gated compound replete with child abuse. As an 18 year veteran of international human rights advocacy, Lindsay has focused her work on freedom of religion, conscience, and belief for religious minorities, gender equality, freedom of speech and assembly, reforming justice systems and trafficking. She also founded and served as the Advocacy Director for Open Doors USA, working on a variety of issues in Asia and the MENA region. At Coptic Solidarity, she advocated for equal citizenship rights of religious minorities, promoted the separation of mosque and state as well as secular values and governing principles in Egypt.
Malkie Schwartz is the founder of Footsteps, the first organization in North America to assist people who wish to leave the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and live in mainstream society. She founded the organization in 2003, three years after she herself chose to leave her community of origin. To date, Footsteps has served hundreds of individuals and has an annual budget of over $2 million. Malkie has also worked for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life as their first Director of Community Engagement, and is a co-founder and board member of the Rights and Religions Forum. Currently, Malkie Schwartz serves as Associate Counsel in the Office of Legal Affairs at Hunter College.
Imtiaz Shams is a tech entrepreneur, human rights activist, and the co-founder of Faith To Faithless, an advocacy group for ex-religious people.
Imtiaz used his experience to help apostates who suffer when they leave conservative religions. In 2012, he began creating ‘underground railroad’ networks for Ex-Muslims around the world.
He has been featured on the BBC, Vice, the Guardian, and the Times. In 2017 he was the first Ex-Muslim ever to speak at an Islamic Conference, as he believes religious organizations are important in the fight to tackle apostate discrimination. Imtiaz is also a Trustee of Humanists UK.
Muhammad Syed is a human rights activist, writer, speaker and community organizer. He is the founder and president of Ex-Muslims of North-America, the first Ex-Muslim advocacy and community building organization in North America.
Muhammad has been an activist for over two decades, beginning with his interest in the anti-War effort during the War on Terror, and today continues with a focus on efforts to normalize religious dissent and promote acceptance of secularism in Muslim communities. His work with EXMNA has been featured in the Economist, the BBC, and the New York Times.
Beatrice Weber MBA, is the Executive Director of YAFFED, a non-profit group working to improve secular education in ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Yeshivas in New York and abroad.
She was raised in the Hasidic community and was married off in an arranged marriage before graduating high school. She is the first – and only – parent who has filed a complaint against her son’s Hasidic Yeshiva contending that he was not receiving an education.
Chavie Weisberger is the Director of Community Engagement for Footsteps. Chavie grew up in a tight-knit Chassidic community. She was set up to be married at 18 years old, divorced at age 25, and came out as queer at 30. She then spent five years fighting for, and ultimately winning, custody of her three children and finding her footing in secular society.
She now supports Footsteps members as they find community and belonging. Most recently she helped facilitate the launch of the monthly Interfaithless support group where folks who are leaving other fundamentalist faiths can find healing alongside Footsteps members.
Registration and Breakfast
9:00 - 9:15 AM
Welcome and Opening Notes
9:15 - 11:00 AM
Movement Building: A Conversation with Organizational Founders and Leaders
Shirlee Draper, Malkie Schwartz, Imtiaz Shams and Muhammad Syed
11:00 - 11:15 AM
11:15 - 11:45 AM
Lessons Learned from Leaders of Ex-communities
Secular Strategies: Sarah Levin, Jena Renae and Lindsay Rodriguez
11:45 - 1:15 PM
1:15 - 2:00 PM
The Power of Words: Reclaiming Cultish Language (and Belief)
2:00 - 2:45 PM
Interfaithless: Finding Common Ground
Footsteps: Naomi Moskowitz and Chavie Weisberger
2:45 - 3:00 PM
3:00 - 3:45 PM
Spotlight on Education
Mary Byler and Beatrice Weber
3:45 - 4:15 PM
Creativity as a Counterpoint to Religion
4:15 - 5:00 PM
Sarah Haider and Malkie Schwartz
5:00 - 7:00 PM
Movement Building: A Conversation with Organizational Founders and Leaders
This panel will feature founders and leaders who assist people from insular religious communities who question or seek to leave their communities of origin. We will discuss where progress has been made and where it is most needed. We will also delve into the assumptions and challenges that have made progress difficult as well as the goals and plans for overcoming them. Finally, we will begin to envision opportunities for activists, leaders and community members from various insular faith backgrounds to learn from one another and work together to advance shared values and goals.
Lessons Learned from Leaders of Ex-communities
Over the past year, Secular Strategies performed an environmental scan on behalf of the Rights and Religions Forum to better understand the needs, priorities, and challenges that are faced by faith community leaders and organizations who serve members who either question their faith or who have left completely.
In this panel, Secular Strategies will be presenting an overview of their findings, highlighting the greatest areas of commonality amongst interviewees, and presenting the most pressing areas for collaboration across former faith groups.
The Power of Words: Reclaiming Cultish Language (and Belief)
How do cultish religions weaponize language to manipulate their followers, and how can survivors reclaim language to forge their own identities and beliefs? Amanda Montell—linguist, author of the critically acclaimed book CULTISH: The Language of Fanaticism, and daughter of a cult survivor—invites attendees to engage in a dialogue about the power of words and delivery to influence spiritual thought, in both nefarious ways and empowering ones.
Interfaithless: Finding Common Ground
Interfaithless is a Footsteps’ program where people who have left insular religions are able to meet, learn from, and connect with each other. The group brings together those who left all kinds of religions, including but not limited to former ultra-Orthodox Jews, former Muslims, former Jehovah’s Witnesses, former Evangelicals, former LDS, and former Presbyterians. In this presentation, Footsteps staff Naomi Moskowitz and Chavie Weisberger will introduce a video featuring Interfaithless leaders Chana Prus, Sarah Otero, and Obed Done who will share more about the program and how it comes to life.
Spotlight on Education
This session will focus on the educational neglect that impacts too many children in schools operated within insular religious communities, discussing the lack of proficiency among school children in Hasidic yeshivas in areas such as math, science, and English as well as the Amish community. We will also hear about how Yaffed, a New York based non-profit, has advanced change in Hasidic schools as well as the road ahead.
Creativity as a Counterpoint to Religion
The artist Sara Klar will offer an insightful and interactive presentation of her art focused on the act of destroying what has been oppressive and imprisoning so that anger, pain, fear and suffering may be released to create space for hope, power, liberation and reconciliation.
Her presentation will include slides and discussion of the series Reclamation Project for the Self-Constructed Self: A Collaboration with Footsteppers – exploring transformative artworks made from religious and personal articles given to the artist by people who have left Orthodox Judaism. She will also explore how the arts can be a powerful tool to tell the stories of people from insular religious communities and effect positive change.
The conference brought together “exes” from a variety of faith backgrounds as speakers and panels. Ex-Muslims, Ex-Amish, Ex-Orthodox, Ex-Evangelical, Ex-Mormon, and many more came to share and learn from each other’s experiences.
WRRC Con 2019 Video Series
9:00 – 9:30 AM
Registration and Check-In
9:30 – 9:45 AM
Conference Opening Notes
9:45 – 10:15 AM
Our Constitution, Our Rights
Associate Counsel, FFRF
Elizabeth will examine the interplay between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause and the legal history of how these rights have been understood. We will discuss the legal standards that courts use to judge where to draw lines between the civil rights of one citizen and the free exercise rights of another.
She will also explore the importance of the Establishment Clause in placing limits on how far the government can go in favoring certain religions’ right to free exercise at the expense of other citizens and society at large.
10:15 – 11:00 AM
Panel – Colliding Rights And Religions
11:15 – 11:45 AM
Wisconsin v. Yoder and the Foreclosure of Student Activism
In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Supreme Court unanimously sided with Amish parents who argued that Amish children should be exempted from compulsory high school education. Breaking from precedents regarding religious freedom in education, the Yoder decision became the model for the Christian Right homeschool movement and proponents of separatist schooling. The case legitimated a wider religious conflation of mainstream US education with notions of deviance, sin, and immorality. As such, the decision paved the way for arguments that multicultural curricula and “controversial” subjects like sexual education were reflective of mainstream corruption.
Drawing from narratives of children from fundamentalist groups like Quiverfull, Yahweh’s Ministries, Twelve Tribes, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Amish, and Mennonite, I argue that the idyllic and stereotypical construction of Amishness in the Yoder decision had lasting implications for student activism in the United States, particularly for children born into religious fundamentalist groups. By furthering a narrative that mainstream education is morally suspicious, the case exacerbated tensions between public educators and religious fundamentalists for whom education is viewed not as a right, but a danger.
11:45 – 12:30 PM
Panel – A View From The Courts
For those plotting the transition from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish life to the secular world, the stakes can be enormous and the journey can be overwhelming. Join us for a discussion on what happens when leaving your ultra-Orthodox Jewish community collides with marriage, divorce, and the strains and stresses of navigating a court system riddled with barriers and bias.
Panelists will include Fraidy Reiss, executive director of Unchained At Last, Faigy Gelbstein, Footsteps member and mom, and an attorney from the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, will moderate.
KEYNOTE: Child Marriage, Politics, and the Constitution
In Idaho, a child under the age of sixteen can marry with the consent of a judge and the parents. The youngest minor to wed in Idaho was just thirteen. Child right’s proponents believe such a law is essentially institutionalized child abuse and arranged rape, and yet, a bill banning child marriage in the state failed.
Opposition came from both the political Right and the Left. Conservatives cite religious reasons in support of child marriage. While the ACLU asserted that the Idaho bill “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause”. Planned Parenthood and the National Center for Youth Law agreed.
Marci Hamilton will explore the civil rights movement for children and the push to end child marriage in the United States.
1:45 – 12:30 PM
Panel – A View From The Courts
The discussion features four individuals who left their religious communities of origin (Jehovah’s Witness, “Quiverfull,” Catholic, Muslim). There’ll be an audience Q&A after the panel.
The discussion will focus on their personal journey. They’ll talk about how they were raised, the questions they considered when deciding whether or not to leave, the challenges they faced, the triumphs they achieved, while tran itioning to mainstream society, and their work today.
Panelists include Michael Shemwell, Carrie Pritt, and Stephanie Tessier, and Maryah Haidery.
2:30 – 3:00 PM
Religion and Its Discontents
This conversational talk will focus on why we humans create religions in the first place…and conversely, why is it so hard to leave and let them go. We will look at the psychological impact of joining and leaving; the power of the group; the power of the individual. We will explore some of the ways fundamentalism impedes the psychological processes of imagination, creativity, and choice.
In what ways do these psychological constraints continue to impact living a full life, even after leaving? What supports can enhance an individual as they move beyond the group? How can we celebrate the lives we choose to form? The presentation will be self-reflective, hopefully a bit fun and joyful, and somewhat interactive.
3:00 – 3:45 PM
Panel – Fostering Understanding and Support
This panel features individuals who seek to help others who, like them, come from insular religious communities. They will share the gaps they encountered in social services and mental health professionals’ understanding about the experience of leaving, and their vision of more comprehensive care for those making this transition.
The panel will be moderated by Michael Jenkins (to confirm?), with an audience Q&A afterwards.
Panelists include Pesach Eisen, Nitai Joseph, Torah Bontrager.
4:00 – 4:30 PM
Religious Liberty vs. Secular Rights
Should Christian Scientists be free to deprive their children of medical treatment? Should Christian bakers or photographers be free to decline to service gay marriages that violate their religious beliefs? Should Amish parents be exempt from compulsory high school education laws? When do claims of religious rights and freedoms devolve into demands for religious power?
Sometimes the answer is clear: Mandatory public school prayer entails the unconstitutional state endorsement of sectarianism. Sometimes the answer is arguable and requires balancing the harm of recognizing a religious liberty interest with the harm of denying it: Denying children medical care can have tragic results, unlike the relatively trivial results of denying a same sex couple the right to buy a particular wedding cake from a particular baker. This session will examine the interests on both sides when religious freedom clashes with state power and secular rights.
4:30 – 5:00 PM
Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law
Pakistan’s blasphemy law is the cruelest of its kind in history. When religious ideas trump human rights and blind faith clouds judgement, it calls into question our common humanity. If we are to find our common humanity we must first know what religious laws do to societies and why we must oppose them.
5:00 – 5:30 PM
Final Notes and Closing
Michael P. Jenkins is an eclectically trained psychoanalyst and clinical social worker practicing in New York City. He is a teacher, supervisor and training analyst. He holds a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Center (PPSC) and received his Master in Social Work from NYU.
He held the position of Director of Programs at Footsteps during its formative years and worked in a community health clinic in NYC during his early social work years. A major area of focus is how issues of transition between cultures and religions impact individual identity. He is trained in both contemporary Freudian and contemporary Jungian approaches to dreams and creativity. He specializes in the use of images, dreams and imagination as a way of fostering individual and societal transformation.
Michael is on faculty at PPSC, teaching “Evolution of Technique,” “Freud,” and “Dreams and Unconscious.” He teaches “Dreams and the Unconscious,” and “Freud” at New York Counseling and Guidance Service (NYCGS). Michael is also an exhibiting visual artist. He presents his art in galleries and community spaces and has conducted workshops on creativity in relation to dream imagery and the psyche.
Professor Marci Hamilton is the Founder, CEO, and Academic Director of CHILD USA and the Fox Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. Hamilton is one of the United States’ leading child advocates and the leading expert on child sex abuse statutes of limitations (SOLs). Among her copious publications, she authored Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children, which makes the case for eliminating the SOLs.
Professor Marci HamiltonFOUNDER, CEO, ACADEMIC DIRECTOR OF CHILD USA
Shaan Taseer is an outspoken critic of religious bigotry, bullying and all customs, institutions and laws that discriminate against religious minorities, particularly the blasphemy and apostasy laws of Pakistan. He is the son of the late Governor of Punjab who was assassinated for calling for reform to the blasphemy law. Shaan continues his father’s legacy in defending the rights of religious minorities through his advocacy, activism and multiple grass roots community projects for the the financial and legally aid of people and families affected by Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
For his vocal and unapologetic support for religious freedom and for the rights of religious minorities, the same religious groups that called for his father’s death, issued a fatwa against him in December 2016, calling for his death.
In the face of active death threats and fatwas, he has devoted himself to being the voice of the voiceless, calling for an end to religious discrimination in all its forms, and the freedom of all communities to live in dignity regardless of their religious affiliation.
Malkie Schwartz is an attorney who works at the Hunter College Foundation and the Director of the Eva Kastan Grove Fellowship Program at Hunter College. In her role as Director, she works with policymakers, politicians, and advocates to engage students in projects that advance the public good.
In 2000, Malkie chose to leave her community of origin, and three years later founded Footsteps, the first organization in North America to assist people who wish to leave the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and live in mainstream society.
To date, Footsteps has served over 1300 individuals and has an annual budget of over $2 million. Malkie has also worked for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life as their first Director of Community Engagement, and is a co-founder and board member of the Rights and Religions Forum.
Malkie SchwartzFOUNDER, FOOTSTEPS
Pesach Eisen was born and raised in an Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY where secular education was forbidden and the study of subjects such as Psychology, Science, and Mathematics was treated with disdain and mockery. On top of that, the topic of mental health was non-existent and mental illness was stigmatized even more than in society at large. He started his gradual exodus out of the community in his late teens. At the age of 25, after many years of struggling to find his place on the “outside,” Pesach discovered Footsteps – the only organization in North America assisting individuals on their journey out of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. With their dedicated assistance, he finally obtained his GED. Since then, Pesach has graduated from Kingsborough Community College with an A.A. in Liberal Arts, and from Brooklyn College with a B.S. in Psychology.
Pesach is now a second-year Graduate Student in the Master’s in Mental Health Counseling program at Brooklyn College, and a Graduate Research Assistant researching Jewish Orthodox Religious Disaffiliation. After going through this unique journey, Pesach is now an advocate for mental health and its interaction with religious disaffiliation, as well as for education rights and coexistence between religious disaffiliates and their communities of origin.
Sarah is an American activist, speaker and Executive Director of Ex-Muslims of North America. Born in Pakistan and raised in Texas, Sarah spent her early youth as a practicing Muslim, leaving religion in her late teens. In 2013, Sarah co-founded Ex-Muslims of North America, and is a former board member of the Reason Rally Coalition, organizing the 2016 Reason Rally in Washington D.C.
Today, Sarah advocates for the acceptance of religious dissent through writing, public speaking, and activism. In addition to freethought, Sarah is particularly passionate about civil liberties and women’s rights, and is a co-founder and board member of the Rights and Religions Forum.
Sarah HaiderCO-FOUNDER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF EX-MUSLIMS OF NORTH AMERICA
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer, social critic, and civil libertarian feminist writes about law, liberty, religion, feminism, criminal justice, and popular culture. She has authored eight books, including WORST INSTINCTS: Cowardice, Conformity & the ACLU; SLEEPING WITH EXTRA-TERRESTRIALS: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety; and I’M DYSFUNCTIONAL,YOU’RE DYSFUNCTIONAL: The Recovery Movement & Other Self-Help Fashions. Her articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including The Atlantic, theatlantic.com, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The American Prospect, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Wendy KaminerLAWYER, SOCIAL CRITIC
Nitai Joseph was raised on the fringes of the Hare Krishna movement and spent his early adulthood as a monk and leader within an offshoot sect. After leaving the community, he became active in studying and raising awareness about group influence and abuse. He is currently completing a master’s degree from the University of Salford, studying the psychology of coercive control across contexts. Additionally, Nitai works with non-profits dedicated to preventing and facilitating recovery from experiences of coercive subjugation.
Torah Bontrager, raised traditional Amish, grew up with no electricity and cars and speaks English as a second language. She literally escaped in the middle of the night at age 15, with only what she could carry: the clothes on her back and $170 in her pocket.
In 2018 Torah founded The Amish Heritage Foundation (AHF), which is, per available records, the first organization in Amish history that advocates for the Amish (inside and outside the Church), promotes compassionate secular values, and assists those who leave the Church.
Among other initiatives, AHF is attempting to overturn Wisconsin v. Yoder, the landmark 1972 Supreme Court case that ruled that a religion’s rights outweigh the rights of children to receive an education beyond the 8th grade. Torah is also a co-founder and board member of the Rights and Religions Forum.
Torah BontragerFOUNDER, AMISH HERITAGE FOUNDATION
Maryah Haidery is a researcher, medical writer, mother and activist. She is also a former member of an insular community of Shia Muslims known as Dawoodi Bohras. The community became a subject of recent media attention after one of its members became the first person to face charges under the US federal law banning female genital mutilation.
Maryah’s history with the Dawoodi Bohras led her to join Sahiyo, an organization dedicated to ending female genital mutilation/cutting in Asian communities. During the past 3 years, she has participated in research projects, interviews, speaking events, and storytelling initiatives to increase awareness of this long-taboo subject. She hopes her efforts will challenge conventional beliefs about shame, women’s rights, religious freedom, cultural relativism and islamophobia in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
Lars Stoltzfus-Brown is a PhD Candidate in Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and a University of California, Riverside Holstein Dissertation Fellow. Lars does critical/cultural work in media studies focusing on minoritization, difference, and power. They are currently working on projects exploring whiteness, feminism, and Etsy; the role of mainstream US media in mythologizing Amish heteronormativity; and journalistic failures in discussing transgender immigrants and asylum seekers. Lars’ dissertation explores media usage and identity formation among gender and sexually diverse ex-Amish. Lars has published on White Feminism and transgender-exclusionary discourse on Twitter, and, with colleagues, on gendered violence in the Batman animated series; the dark side of television advertising; and the political economy of corporate media.
Elizabeth Cavell is associate counsel at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, where she has worked since 2013. FFRF is a nonprofit organization that works to keep religion out of government and to educate the public about nontheism.
Prior to joining FFRF, Elizabeth worked as a public defender in southern Colorado. She received her B.A. from the University of Florida in 2005 and her J.D. from Tulane University Law School in 2009.
Elizabeth CavellASSOCIATE COUNSEL, FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION
Carrie is a fourth-year undergraduate in the Philosophy department at Princeton University. She was raised in a fundamentalist religious sect that is sometimes referred to as the “Quiverfull” movement. Because her parents homeschooled her, she was largely sheltered from the outside world until college, at which point she began her deconversion process.
Carrie’s research interests bridge the divide between philosophy and psychology. Currently, she is fascinated by narrative psychology, epistemic norms in religious communities, and the lasting impact of early childhood trauma. Carrie is a passionate advocate for children’s rights, particularly in the context of religious indoctrination.
Michael Shemwell spent 30 years as a Jehovah’s Witness. After suffering suicidal thoughts in 2008, he began a path toward mental and emotional well-being that ultimately led to his waking up to the realities of the world he had been put in as a child. Seven years later he formally left—at the age of 38—with his wife. Both are now completely shunned by everyone they knew previously.
These events led Michael to become an advocate and facilitator for openness in the community, resulting in his podcast Shunned, in which he helps others tell their stories. The 40 episodes to date cover people shunned from not only Jehovah’s Witnesses, but also FLDS, Amish, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Is Was and Will Be, The Chosen People, and even a small family cult.
Michael’s goal is to continue to help others by facilitating transformative conversations to help people process their past lives. He has recently started the Shunned Recovery Project to help jumpstart those conversations.
Mohamed Ali is a student at the University of Rochester, studying physics and philosophy. He is a campus fellow in the Critical Thinking Unit, an initiative aimed at facilitating civil debate on campuses about issues of free speech, individual rights and the dangers of political Islam. He became interested in topics of religion at a relatively young age and decided to leave Islam.
Since then he has developed a passion for philosophy and physics and plans to devote the rest of his life to learning as much as he can about them while writing about the issues that matter to him.