Editor’s Note: Liz Hayes is Americans United’s new assistant director of communications. In this blog post, she explains what motivated her to want to work for Americans United.
I was born, raised and worked as a journalist for nearly 15 years in western Pennsylvania in the suburbs of Pittsburgh – the politically purple borderlands where liberalism drains into the conservative rural vastness that smears the center of the state red.
I grew up in a nominally Christian household. We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but our holidays were focused on family rather than on religious themes. The only times we entered churches were for weddings and funerals. When a childhood friend expressed astonishment that I hadn’t been baptized, I began to realize my family had a different interaction with religion than others in my predominantly Christian community.
The concept of keeping church and state separate first rose in my consciousness in high school, when I questioned why the phrase “under God” was included in the Pledge of Allegiance I recited in home room every morning. Knowing that not everyone believed in the same concept of God, and that some didn’t believe in God at all, I found it to be an oddly divisive clause in a pledge intended to incite national unity.
It wasn’t until 2012, when I began reporting on a lawsuit challenging the legality of a Ten Commandments monument that has stood on public school property near Pittsburgh for 60 years, that I realized how many people still struggle with the concept of church-state separation.
Ready to get to work defending church-state separation.
When the federal lawsuit was filed and the New Kensington-Arnold School District announced its intention to fight in court rather than move the Decalogue to private property, I expected a public outcry – but not the one that occurred. Rather than be outraged that a nearly broke school district with considerable academic and social challenges was going to devote energy and money toward fighting what seems to be a clearly illegal endorsement of religion, the vocal public instead was offended someone had dared to question why the district displays “I am the Lord thy God” on school grounds.
I cringed every time I wrote a story about the case, because I knew the newspaper’s comments section would be filled with remarks bashing the local mom who filed the lawsuit. She was the target of some ugly threats – ironically from people espousing the importance of Christian values.
Although a similar Ten Commandments monument in a nearby school district was deemed unconstitutional through a companion lawsuit, this case is lingering in its fifth year in the court system.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation originally assisted the local plaintiffs in filing the lawsuit. Americans United joined several other allied organizations as friends of the court in support of allowing the woman who brought the case to have her day in court. That’s how I first heard about Americans United, and when I learned that the organization had an opening in its Communications Department, I jumped at the opportunity to join AU’s team.
As a journalist, the First Amendment protections of free speech and a free press have been vital in my professional life. Freedom of religion has been equally important to me on a personal level. I’m excited to have the opportunity to help AU show people that keeping our government free of religion is not a threat to anyone’s personal religious beliefs; indeed, it’s the only surefire way we can protect the multitude of beliefs held by Americans.