Aug 10, 2021

By Allie Schiele

This summer, I have been fortunate to work at American United as an intern in our outstanding Legal Department. It has been such an amazing experience learning about the importance of church-state separation and furthering my interest in legal advocacy.

As a self-described “elder Gen Z,” one of the key takeaways from my summer is how important church-state separation is to the lives of young adults. Although the clearest impact on youth is through public education, where schools are prohibited from endorsing prayer or other religious activities, the connection between church-state separation and youth is not limited to this subject. The mission of AU covers a broad range of issues – from employment discrimination to LGBTQ+ rights to racial justice – meaning just about everyone has a personal connection to this fight.

For example, church-state separation is also an issue of racial justice. As one of my fellow interns PY Liu explained last week, the rise of white Christian nationalism has posed significant dangers to people of color, contributing to xenophobic and racist attitudes that have contributed to religiously and racially motivated hate crimes. As such groups attempt to maintain their religious privilege through strategic political efforts, like the Christian right’s Project Blitz, it is even more important to fight for a strong wall of separation.

There is also a close connection between church-state separation, employment discrimination, and religious schools. In fact, this is the exact issue that started my own advocacy experience in this issue area. Under the ministerial exception, through which religious organizations are exempted from employment discrimination laws for certain employees, religious institutions can fire teachers based on race, gender, sexual orientation and other protected categories. This happened at my high school while I was a student, where our new college counselor was fired for being in a same-sex relationship. Despite not being a faith leader, this decision was justified under a broad interpretation of who is considered a “minister” under the exception. Luckily, through the organizing work of my classmates, we were able to get our school to adopt an anti-discrimination policy protecting employees based on their sexual orientation.

Religious schools, however, still try to use the ministerial exception to circumvent anti-discrimination laws. That’s why AU has fought back in court to protect the rights of these employees to live how they choose without fear of harm from their employers. We have fought to protect all kinds of employees from being discriminated against, such as Shelly Fitzgerald, a school counselor fired for her sexual orientation, and Gregg Tucker, a teacher and director of student life fired for organizing an anti-racism assembly.

Learning about the numerous ways church-state separation impacts my own life and the lives of my peers has made me even more passionate about the issue. In fact, I encourage young people to learn more about the connection of church-state separation to their own lives and get involved in the fight for the wall of separation. You do not need to be an intern, employee or youth fellow at Americans United to join the fight – you can start right at home!

The easiest way is to simply learn more about church-state separation, including the rights of students in public schools, which you can read more about here and here. You can also keep up-to-date with Americans United’s work on our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Witness a violation of church-state separation? Report it to us! Whether you’ve heard a school-sponsored prayer at a football game or your school is allowing religious student clubs to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students, we want to hear about it.

Interested in taking the next step in church-state advocacy? Apply to be a Youth Organizing Fellow next year! Our fantastic Youth Fellows collaborate with young adults across the country to build their organizing skills and advocate for church-state separation in their communities. You can also participate in AU’s annual student essay contest, where high school students reflect on topics related to church-state separation.

Even simple acts such as gathering a few friends and calling your representatives to pass the Do No Harm Act can make a difference. Advocacy work is not limited to large-scale movements, small acts of change can also make a positive impact.

Youth advocacy has proven to be a powerful force for change, including in church-state separation. Whether you are a long-time advocate for the wall of separation or are just getting started, we welcome you to the fight to build a stronger democracy by ensuring the right for all persons to live and believe as they choose.

Allie Schiele has spent the summer working as an intern in AU's Legal Department.