Our History

Americans United has been protecting church-state separation for 75 years. Here is our story.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded in 1947 in reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing indirect support for religious education. A distinguished group of religious, educational, and civic leaders came together to create the uniquely dedicated to defending the historic American principle of separation of church and state.

AU quickly became established as a national presence. Although heavily Protestant at its founding, as the years passed, the organization began attracting support from non-Christian and non-theistic individuals in growing numbers. By the 1970s, AU was truly ecumenical.

Today Americans United is a broad-based movement that includes people of all faith and non-faith perspectives, genders, sexual orientations, political affiliations, and ethnic backgrounds. At an Americans United meeting, you are likely to encounter a devout Christian sitting next to a committed atheist, working together to support the values of equality and freedom embedded in church-state separation.

For a more in-depth look at Americans United’s history, check out this timeline:

1947

Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded by a coalition of leaders to defend church-state separation, support public education, and ensure taxpayers are not forced to fund private, religious education.

1950s

In addition to its focus on protecting secular public education, in its early years AU also fought the censorship of books, plays, and films, lobbied for birth control access, and helped to end mandatory Sunday close laws (Blue Laws) in many states.

1960s

AU faced tumult in public schools with conservatives calling for school-sponsored prayer. Abington Township School District v. Schempp set a precedent, permitting students to pray voluntarily & allowing objective educational instruction on religion

1971

As a plaintiff in Lemon v. Kurtzman, AU helped strike down programs aiding private schools with public funds. A set of guidelines called the “Lemon Test,” originated to help determine if government actions meet the rules of church-state separation.

1980s-90s

During the Reagan years, AU faced the rise of Religious Right groups that became a dominant political force opposing church-state separation. AU exposed the radical agenda of these groups through in-depth reports and working alongside the media.

1996

AU launches Project Fair Play, an initiative to monitor tax violations by houses of worship. The seeds of this campaign were planted in 1992 when AU spotted & reported an ad by a fundamentalist church advising readers not to vote for Bill Clinton.

1998

AU urges Congress to defeat the Istook Amendment, a proposed amendment that would allow officially sanctioned prayer in public schools, religious displays, and tax funding of religious groups. AU spearheaded the opposition and helped seal its defeat.

2001

AU files a case challenging Justice Roy Moore for refusal to remove a 2.5 ton Ten Commandments monument at the judicial building. This is a win for AU following struggles with the Religious Right over displays of religious symbols.

2005

After Dover (Pa.) School District encouraged students to learn “Intelligent Design,” a form of creationism. AU & its allies filed a lawsuit. The judge ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, stating that ID is not science, but an inherently religious view.

2006

AU wins victory in Iowa court, forcing the removal of a “faith-based” program called InnerChange from prisons. Innerchange allowed inmates who adopted fundamentalism to receive preferred treatment.

2014

AU launched Operation Inclusion, a campaign to ensure that government bodies follow the Supreme Court’s new guidance for public invocations in Greece v. Galloway, including that town leaders must strive for diversity when selecting speakers.

2015

Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized marriage for same-sex couples nationwide was a victory for LGBTQ rights, but also a catalyst for religious extremists to advance claims they should have the right to discriminate. AU has been fighting religious exemptions from LGBTQ rights for many years.

2018

CEO Rachel Laser was hired to lead the organization into the future, following the retirement of longtime Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, who assumed the position in 1992.

2020

AU held its first-ever National Advocacy Summit to rally supporters and advocate for the Do No Harm Act, a federal bill that would restore religious freedom as a shield that protects people, and ensure it’s not used as a sword to harm others.

2021

AU outlined the steps the Biden administration needs to take to restore and protect religious freedom following 4 years of Trump undermining chuch-state separation, including repealing the Muslim Ban and supporting the Do No Harm Act, among others.

You have a stake in the fight for religious freedom.

Threats to church-state separation are nothing new. But in AU’s 75-year history, they’ve never been more dangerous. Your support matters—urgently.

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