Critical Response: And Now, A Word From AU’s (E-)Mail Bag

We are all Americans, and we live under the same Constitution.

Americans United’s Legal Department recently wrote to officials at the Cherokee County, Ga., Board of Education and warned them to stop holding graduation ceremonies in a large Baptist church.

Some people in the area aren’t very happy about this and have been letting Americans United know that. I’ve noticed that their e-mail arguments most often boil down to five points. Since these same five points tend to come up whenever Americans United wades into a local church-state controversy, I’d like to address them today:

Butt out! You people are in Washington, D.C., and this is none of your business. Defending civil liberties is everyone’s business. But more to the point, Americans United weighs in on matters like this only when we are asked to do so by someone in the community. We are speaking not for ourselves but on behalf of someone who lives and works in the town where the violation is occurring. It has to be this way because if the matter goes to court, local residents must serve as plaintiffs.

Average citizens do not have the money, resources and know-how to file church-state lawsuits, so they turn to groups like AU. This is very common and shouldn’t surprise anyone. Supporters of Religious Right legal groups do the same thing.

Why don’t you do something useful like feed hungry children/save the whales/help the homeless, etc. Those are all important causes, and I’m sure many Americans United members and staffers get involved in them. But our work is to defend the separation of church and state. Protecting Americans’ constitutional rights is more than “useful” – it is essential.

Don’t you know that separation of church and state is not in the Constitution? You might want to tell that to James Madison, the “father of the Constitution” and primary author of the Bill of Rights because he was sure it was in there. “Separation of church and state” is how we describe the religion clauses of the First Amendment. It was Thomas Jefferson who first used the metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state. This policy of separation has given Americans more religious freedom than any people in history of the world. That is quite an accomplishment, and it’s a shame that some Americans don’t appreciate it.

We’ve always done it this way, so why should we change? If what the community is doing is unconstitutional or violates the rights of others, the fact that it has been going on for a long time does not save it; the policy will have to change. For a long time, the practice in many Southern states was to deny basic civil and legal rights to African Americans. Although longstanding, this policy was legally and morally wrong. When residents refused to make the changes voluntarily, courts stepped in to ensure that everyone’s rights were protected. This is not an easy thing, but it is sometimes necessary for a nation that lives under the rule of law.

Most people here favor what we’re doing. The majority should rule. The majority rules when it comes to elections. It does not rule in matters of constitutional rights. Majorities are capable of being wrong. Passions can be inflamed, and people can run roughshod over the rights of others. Thankfully, our Constitution places core rights beyond the reach of mob rule.

To our critics in Cherokee County and elsewhere I would add this: We are all Americans, and we live under the same Constitution. We may disagree on these matters, but an “us vs. them” mentality does us no good.

Rather than dismissing AU’s argument out of hand, why not listen to it?