Suppose you run into a violation of church-state separation in your local community, are upset by the violation, and decide to make a complaint. Here are some thoughts on how to go about it. Think of these as lessons I've learned from mistakes I have made.
- If possible, give yourself time to calm down and think before complaining. I know this isn't always possible, but you will usually be more effective if you approach the situation from a calm place rather than complaining in a moment of intense anger.
- Identify the appropriate person to hear the complaint. That is, figure out who has the decision-making authority and complain to them. Subordinates may agree with you but probably have little control over the situation.
- Adopt a helpful mindset before complaining. I find that I am far more likely to be successful and not make an ass of myself if I enter the situation assuming that the violation is unintentional and comes from a place of ignorance. This is also helpful in making sure I escalate the complaint appropriately (see section on escalation below).
- Showing that you know the relevant law may strengthen your complaint.
- Do not yell. You may be angry, but yelling at a government official can end badly for you and will do little to advance your argument.
When your complaint fails, there are two different types of escalation you may want to consider. One sort of escalation involves moving your complaint up the agency's hierarchy. Since not every complaint needs to go right to the top, you usually don't need to start there. But there may come a time when your complaint has been rejected at one level and you want to go to the next. It may be as simple as requesting a meeting with someone's supervisor or writing to a person with greater authority. If you do this, you'll want to be clear that you started the process with someone at a lower level, were unhappy with the result, and are requesting the assistance of the person at the higher level.
The other sort of escalation involves raising the stakes through means like informing the media, initiating a petition, seeking help from organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the ACLU, organizing protests, considering legal action, and the like. Many times, a letter from an outside organization agreeing with you and providing relevant legal citations is sufficient. It shows that you have support and that the government agency is in the wrong.
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