I am incredibly honored and privileged to join AU’s legislative team as state legislative counsel. I first became interested in working at Americans United while in law school after I learned about AU’s work, and it looks like there will be a lot of work to be done when the state legislatures return in January. Already, there are pre-filed bills that would create voucher programs, undermine women’s health care decisions and permit discrimination against LGBTQ people.
I cannot pinpoint an exact moment when I realized the importance of separation of church and state. When I think about it now, it seems the instinct was always there and that it was made stronger by my experiences. I can say that as I grew in my understanding of U.S. government, public policy and law, my belief in the separation of church and state has become more secure.
Growing up, my family attended church mostly on Christmas and Easter. I was raised Catholic and was Confirmed in middle school, and most of our close family friends were Catholic as well. But growing up on Long Island, N.Y., I was surrounded by a diverse community. My friends were Christian, Jewish, non-theists and more. I was raised to be accepting of people from all traditions and faiths.
In high school, I moved to South Carolina, where religion seemed to be a more obvious part of my friends’ daily lives. What I saw in my friends there was how they used religion to help themselves be better people and to be more accepting and gracious to those around them.
Nik Nartowicz has joined Americans United's team as state legislative counsel.
In the early 2000s, “school choice” was part of the national conversation. As a public school student my whole life, I was personally interested in school policy. I quickly realized that “school choice” was a way to funnel public money into religious schools through vouchers. But I was taught that the separation of church and state was fundamental to U.S. ideals and our democracy. That lesson was crystalized in my experiences: at school, I learned history and science and math; at Catholic CCD sessions after school, I learned about my religion.
This was also the time that “family values voters” gained attention. As a young member of the LGBTQ community struggling to come to terms with myself, I saw religion used as an excuse to reject or discriminate against LGBTQ people. This was contrary to my own experiences with religion, because no one I knew in New York or South Carolina used their faith as a reason to discriminate.
I decided I wanted to be a lawyer about when I was 13, and I always wanted to work in public interest. It wasn’t until I was fortunate enough to work for Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser that I realized the importance and power of state legislatures. Protecting the separation of church and state is crucial in legislative bodies across the country.
Government should be used to protect its citizens, not hurt them. Religion should be used to enhance people’s lives, not forced on others through government action. As AU’s state legislative counsel, I will fight to ensure these ideals are upheld and make sure that state legislatures are helping their residents succeed and flourish by maintaining the separation of church and state.