When Americans United was launched 71 years ago, its founders issued a Manifesto outlining the organization’s goals. Defending a secular system of public schools was high among them.
Back then, no one was using the term “voucher,” but some religious groups weren’t shy about demanding taxpayer support for their private schools. AU’s founders were alarmed at this trend and made it clear that public money should be spent only on public schools.
“The effect of state-supported church schools would spell the end of our public school system as it has been established, fostered, and protected for more than a century,” observed the document. “To divide state-supported education into sectarian school systems would divide American society itself into hostile sectarian camps, intensify sectarian intolerance, and thrust a religious issue permanently into the political arena from which our Constitution was designed to exclude it. Next to the Constitution itself, our public school system has been our strongest bulwark against the development of religious intolerance in our political life.”
Elsewhere the Manifesto vows to “give all possible aid to the citizens of any community or State who are seeking to protect their public schools from sectarian domination….”
Public school teachers were involved with AU from day one. Among the founders was Charl Ormond Williams, a trail-blazing educator from Tennessee. Williams served as a principal and superintendent in Shelby County, Tenn., during a time when few women could secure top administrative positions in education. As one Tennessee-themed site put it, “She revolutionized the county school system, increasing its funding, adding new school buildings, and doubling school attendance. During her tenure, Shelby County’s schools rose to national prominence.”
Williams was also one of the first women elected to the presidency of the National Education Association, and in that role helped create Americans United.
From the beginning, AU pursued the same two-track strategy it still relies on today: Protect public schools by opposing the diversion of tax money to religious education and defend the public schools from religious groups determined to use them as a vehicle to spread their dogma.
An early AU case from 1948 touched on both of these streams: It involved a public school in a rural area of New Mexico that had been turned over to a religious group. Children were being educated in a sectarian environment, and some parents objected. Americans United provided legal advice and work to create public awareness of the issue. The New Mexico Supreme Court later invalidated the arrangement. (Such situations, known as “captive schools,” were not uncommon at the time. Thanks to AU’s work, within a few years, they had all disappeared.)
Over the years, Americans United played a key role in dozens of church-state cases dealing with public aid to religious education, often representing parents and taxpayer in court or filing briefs. At the same time, we’ve worked with parents, students and educators to help them understand the difference between legitimate instruction about religion in an objective and academic manner, which we don’t oppose, and sectarian proselytism, which we most certainly do oppose.
We’re proud of that tradition. And during Public Schools Week, we vow to continue our work in support of secular public education, one of our nation’s greatest achievements.
P.S. Don't forget that Americans United Executive Director Rachel Laser and other AU staff members will be hosting a Facebook Live discussion at 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) on Friday, March 16. They'll be talking about how Americans United advocates for both public schools and religious freedom and what we’re doing right now to keep that support strong. Please join us!