An image of James Talarico with the title Secularist of the year

Texas Rep. James Talarico is first “Secularist of the Year” while Okla. superintendent is named “Theocrat of the Year”

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FFRF Action Fund celebrates Texas Rep. James Talarico as its first “Secularist of the Year” for his stellar work protecting secularism in the Lone Star State while notorious Superintendent Ryan Walters is branded “Theocrat of the Year” for his myriad attempts to destroy secular education in Oklahoma. 

Texas state Rep. James Talarico is the most prominent secular superstar within Texas, a rising secular champion even though he is personally religious.  Talarico, an aspiring preacher and one of the youngest legislators in the Texas House, has spent the year combating an onslaught of theocratic attacks within Texas. 

When a bill requiring every public school classroom in Texas to display the Ten Commandments went to floor debate, Talarico’s response to the bill’s sponsor, Texas Rep. Candy Noble, went viral. Talarico said, “This bill to me is not only unconstitutional, it’s not only un-American, I think it is also deeply un-Christian. I believe this bill is idolatrous. I believe it is exclusionary. And I believe it is arrogant, and those three things, in my reading of the Gospel, are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus.” The bill was thankfully killed (for now).

Talarico, currently working toward his Master of Divinity and a self-proclaimed “devout Christian,” is a staunch protector of secularism in Texas government. Talarico told Politico, “The thing that warms my heart the most is people who say, ‘I’m an atheist, agnostic, or I left the church or I left religion. But this is the kind of Christianity I can believe in.” Talarico’s seminary classwork is equipping him with the tools to change Texas and tackle the culture war wielded by Republicans pushing Christian nationalist rhetoric. 

After flipping his red-leaning district in 2018 (one of the few Texas Democrats to accomplish that feat), he faced a challenge by Republicans working to redraw the lines of his district. Talarico moved to a safer, blue-leaning district and remains a robust opponent against theocracy. We are honored to name him our first “Secularist of the Year.”

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters, an outspoken opponent of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in his relentless efforts to inject theocracy into Oklahoma school systems, is assigned the first “Theocrat of the Year” title. 

FFRF continuously called out Walters’ abhorrent 2023 actions, such as promoting Christianity and the Ten Commandments in Oklahoma’s classrooms, targeting a school district that agreed not to impose prayer onto its student body, and claiming he was going to “end state-sponsored atheism.” Walters pandered to Oklahoma Christian nationalists who urged him to push prayer and “expressions of faith in God” onto students

A zealous advocate of book banning, Walters claimed that students should learn from the bible after calling for Oklahoma public schools to ban 190 books that included LGBTQ+ content. Most egregiously, Walters has cheerleaded efforts to establish the first publicly funded religious charter school in the U.S., a scheme that FFRF is challenging in court

Walters has dishonestly accused FFRF of trying to take away the religious freedom of students in Oklahoma, while he fails to uphold clear constitutional precedent and protect the rights of all Oklahoma students, not just Christian children. For his long list of violations, Walters has more than “earned” his disreputable “Theocrat of the Year” title. 

House Speaker Mike Johnson receives an honorary mention as “Theocrat of the Year” for injecting his Christian nationalist agenda into the Speaker role and grossly misrepresenting the separation of church and state as a “misnomer.”

The year 2023 has been a hard one for secular principles and allies, with Christian nationalists working in all levels of the government, from state superintendent positions to the Speaker of the House. But we and our allies have faith that, with defenders such as Rep. Talarico, the secular principles that form the backbone of our democracy will prevail.

FFRF Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that develops and advocates for legislation, regulations and government programs to preserve the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It also advocates for the rights and views of nonbelievers, endorses candidates for political office, and publicizes the views of elected officials concerning religious liberty issues.