Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded in 1947 by a broad coalition of religious, educational and civic leaders.
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.
AU’s 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. At the same time, state and local chapters of Americans United were formed, and the organization began publishing Church & State magazine and other materials in support of church-state separation to educate members of the general public. These activities continue today and form the core of AU’s operations.
As the years went by, Americans United 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 Americans United 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, attempting to saturate the curriculum with fundamentalist theology.
At the same time, “education choice” advocates began demanding tax subsidies for religious education through vouchers, tuition tax credits and other avenues. Americans United 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, Americans United exposed 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.
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, Americans United 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 Americans United banner to defend the separation of church and state.
AU’s current executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, is a United Church of Christ minister as well as an attorney long active on behalf of civil liberties. Through the years, many members of the clergy have been involved in the work of Americans United. However, AU is officially a non-sectarian and non-partisan organization. Americans United is happy to work with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists and those who profess other religious beliefs or no belief. We welcome Democrats, Republicans, Independents and those of other political affiliations who share our 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.