Today is my last day as a fellow in the Legal Department at Americans United. In my two years here, I have learned an immense amount and I want to share a few insights before I go.
When I started here I was excited to work on the issues that have made AU trusted experts over the years. I was looking forward to working on a variety of complex and novel First Amendment questions addressing bread-and-butter church-state issues such as invocations before public meetings and private-school vouchers. And my time at AU did not disappoint. I was able to work on lawsuits challenging local governments using prayers before public meetings as an opportunity to advance one religious belief. And I had the opportunity to be in Nevada as my boss (and mentor), AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, argued the unconstitutionality of the state’s voucher program to the Nevada Supreme Court. I saw those fights coming, and I was honored to be a part of them.
There were a couple of things that I was not prepared for, however.
The first is how church-state separation is the key line of defense to fight against religion being used as an excuse to harm others. I’ve worked on cases of people denied marriage licenses, access to core reproductive health care, their promised pensions and even their jobs – their very livelihoods – on the basis of someone else’s religion. Religious freedom is one of the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution, but that does not give anyone the right to use religion to hurt others.
The second was living under a new administration that has different goals than what many of us were used to seeing from our government. I never expected to be living in a time when the government would try to keep out of our country people in desperate need, simply because of their religion. And I thought that the progress made in the fight for LGBTQ equality would keep moving forward, not backward.
AU Legal Fellow Bradley Girard was among the attorneys at Dulles International Airport offering legal assistance to immigrants and their families following President Trump's first Muslim ban in January.
Yet here we are, facing a fight against church-state separation at every turn. And although my path is taking me in a different direction at such a crucial time, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of the fight. (And in my defense, my fellowship was a two-year term, and my super-talented co-fellow, Carmen Green, and I are being replaced by a couple of fantastic lawyers, Alison Tanner and Claire Hillan.)
I am proud to have worked for an organization that is at the forefront of this advocacy. I am proud to have worked with our many allied organizations. And I am proud to have worked with a group of colleagues at AU endlessly committed to fighting for church-state separation, in all its forms. I have learned a great deal from them, and I know that the fight is in good hands going forward.
As much as I have learned from my colleagues, I have learned even more from the people who we represent. From student activists, to faith leaders, to airport protestors, to the plaintiffs in our lawsuits, I have seen a staggering number of people with the courage to stand up not only for their rights, but for the rights of others – often at a personal cost. And to those people, I want to say thank you for constantly reminding me why this work matters and, please, keep at it – the fight is nothing without you.