February marks Black History Month, a month to appreciate the accomplishments that African-Americans have made throughout American history. This Black History Month, we are highlighting the important role African-American figures have played, and continue to play, in promoting true religious freedom and church-state separation.

Among those figures is legendary civil rights icon John Lewis, who was one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders in the 1960s. Lewis continues to build on his legacy of promoting equality and fairness through his activism and career.

Lewis was elected to Congress as a Democrat from Georgia in 1986, and his record as a public servant continues to be marked by his support for important legislation. That includes his support for the Johnson Amendment, a 63-year-old provision in federal law that protects the integrity of elections and tax-exempt nonprofits – including houses of worship. Lewis, an ally of Americans United, has been a longtime champion of the law.

“I knew [the Rev.] Martin Luther King; he was a friend of mine. He never, to my knowledge, endorsed a political candidate."

President Donald J. Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the law in year one of his presidency, and House Republicans attempted to gut the provision in their tax bill (formally known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act).  

Lewis was quick to act. He offered an amendment to strip the harmful language from the bill, and although his amendment failed, language that repealed the Johnson Amendment was never added to the Senate version or the final version that was signed into law. His passionate defense of the Johnson Amendment drew national attention. During the House Ways and Means Committee markup of the bill, Lewis said political endorsements in sacred spaces “pit neighbors against neighbors, worship­pers against worshippers, and volunteers against volunteers.”

In previous years, Lewis has reminded people that during the civil rights movement, the emphasis was on issues, not candidates: “I knew [the Rev.] Martin Luther King; he was a friend of mine. He never, to my knowledge, endorsed a political candidate."

“During the civil rights movement, we fought to end legal segregation and break down barriers to political participation,” he said. “The church was the heart and soul of our efforts because ministers had the moral authority and respect to stand against immoral and indefensible laws, bad laws, bad customs, bad tradition.”

Lewis has also been fighting back against using religion-based discrimination. He was critical of government funding religious organizations through the faith-based initiative that discriminates against others or tramples on the religious freedom rights of religious minorities. “I think there has to be a strong wall, a solid wall between church and state,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to see religious groups out trying to convert or proselytize with federal dollars.” 

Standing in solidarity with marginalized religious minorities has been a consistent theme throughout Lewis’ career. More than a year ago, when Trump issued his first Muslim ban, Lewis was among the lawmakers who went to airports to protest the ban and demand answers to why people were being detained. 

Using his voice as a faith leader to combat discrimination, Lewis has strongly opposed efforts to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against women, LGBTQ people and more.

“I will never understand what is so attractive about discrimination that people really want to be free to do it… As an ordained minister and a student of philosophy, I can say that none of the ‘great religions’ can rightfully serve as a license to hate,” Lewis said when Trump issued his “religious freedom” executive order targeting LGBTQ people, women, the Johnson Amendment and more. “Somewhere I read that all of the law and the prophets boil down to one guiding principle for human society: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Lewis’ significance in American history can’t be overstated. He has cemented his legacy as an intersectional civil rights icon who has worked tirelessly to ensure that every American is treated equally regardless of race, sex, gender, religion and the like. We thank him for including church-state separation and religious freedom among the important issues he champions. 

(Photo of John Lewis: CBS This Morning.)