November 22, 2017

This Week in History: Founding of Americans United for Separation of Church and State


Stonewall protest in New York City, February 4, 2017 / Jeffrey Bary


11.20.2017

Americans United for Separation of Church and State was established 70 years ago by a broad coalition of religious, educational and civic leaders. Its Manifesto was issued on November 20, 1947, which is considered the official founding date. President Harry S Truman was in the White House, and the Cold War and anti-Communist blacklist were revving up.

At that time, proposals were pending in the U.S. Congress to extend government aid to private religious schools. Many Americans opposed this idea, insisting that government support for religious education would violate church-state separation. The decision was made to form a national organization to promote this point of view and defend the separation principle.

Americans United (AU) leaders wanted a group with a nationwide focus that would be active on several fronts. The organization worked to educate members of Congress, as well as state and local lawmakers, about the importance of maintaining church-state separation. State and local chapters of AU were formed, and the organization began publishing Church & State magazine and other materials to educate members of the general public. These activities continue today and form the core of AU’s operations.

Over time, AU tackled new issues as they emerged. In 1962 and ’63, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down landmark rulings striking down government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Calls soon began emanating from Congress to amend the Constitution to protect the “right to pray in school.” But AU defended the rulings, pointing out that no branch of government has the right to compel children to take part in religious worship and that truly voluntary student prayer remained legal.

In the late 1970s, the Religious Right began its rise as a political force, and AU responded. Throughout the 1980s, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and other allied groups unleashed a torrent of attacks on church-state separation and assailed the principle in the halls of Congress and the federal courts. They also targeted public schools for “takeover” campaigns through well-funded school board elections, attempting to saturate the curriculum with fundamentalist theology such as “creationist” or “intelligent design” alternatives to the science of evolution.

At the same time, “education choice” advocates began demanding tax subsidies for religious education through vouchers, tuition tax credits and other avenues. AU rallied the opposition to these schemes and helped secure a string of court victories that turned back the Religious Right and their pro-voucher allies. AU also organized Americans to speak out against the extreme and intolerant agenda of the Religious Right.

In the 1990s, Religious Right forces regrouped under TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. This organization focused heavily on local politics, playing special attention to public school boards. Its supporters brazenly demanded an end to public education and the “Christianization” of politics. Through a series of in-depth reports and by working with the nation’s media, AU helped to expose the radical agenda of the Christian Coalition.

The rise of other Religious Right organizations such as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defense Fund has kept AU busy in recent years. At the same time, the organization continues to oppose misguided voucher initiatives in the states and seeks to block so-called “faith-based” initiatives in the federal government and in the states.

The effect of religious power in the public sphere can be devastating. Efforts to rid our dollar bills of the slogan “In God We Trust” have been suspended for lack of support in the courts, and the phrase “under God,” inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 to oppose “godless Communism,” still stands. Schoolrooms often display Christian or Biblical religious symbols that disrespect students from the many different cultural traditions who sit in our classrooms today.

On sports fields coaches for public high school teams are known to gather the team together for prayer before the game, and religious spokespersons are often invited into schools to proselytize against homosexuality and reproductive choice. At public meetings, religious invocations, sometimes quite specifically denominational, are offered.

According to recent Supreme Court interpretations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, business owners can refuse to cover birth control for their female employees because of their “deeply and sincerely held religious beliefs,” subjecting everyone in the workforce to the personal whims of their employer. A case before the Supreme Court now will decide if a business with its doors open to the general public, such as a bakery, can refuse to provide a wedding cake for a same-gender couple.

The implications for such discrimination are almost unfathomable. A business could refuse to serve divorced people, or women wearing pants, men with long hair, or Muslims, Jews, Sikhs or heretics. Doctors, pharmacies and hospitals could refuse to treat LGBTQ patients. The door would be opened wide for a future of endless pain and litigation if the country tears down the wall of separation.

Pres. Trump has declared his intention to do away with the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code enacted in 1954 and named for then U.S. Representative from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson, that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Such organizations are the most common type of nonprofit organization in the United States, ranging from charitable foundations to universities and churches. If Congress does away with the Johnson Amendment, we will see an immediate explosion of preachers telling congregants from their pulpits whom to vote for, and churches will be unleashed to contribute to political campaigns. Truckloads of right-wing money could then be “tax-deductibly” channeled through churches into the coffers of reactionary political candidates.

Americans United believes that all Americans have the constitutional right to practice the religion of their choice—or refrain from taking part in religion—as individual conscience dictates. The government must remain neutral on religious questions. This has been a guiding principle of AU since the organization was founded.

Today AU is based in Washington, D.C., with a professional staff of nearly 40 full-time employees. Americans of all religious and philosophical backgrounds have joined forces under the AU banner to defend the separation of church and state.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister as well as an attorney, has just retired after serving as AU’s executive director for 25 years. Through the years, many members of the clergy have been involved in the work of Americans United, believing that faith thrives best when no particular faith, or even faith in general, is favored by the state. Many social historians posit that the popularity of religion in the United States owes itself precisely to the traditional separation of church and state, because religions had to compete for members in the “marketplace,” as there was never an established religion.

AU is officially non-sectarian and non-partisan, happy to work with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists and those who profess other religious beliefs or no belief. The common bond is a shared belief in religious liberty.

Americans United celebrates the rich religious and philosophical diversity of the United States and seeks a nation where all people may peacefully pursue the truth as their consciences dictate.

More about Americans United can be found here.

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