Robert S. Alley: Friend Of Freedom

Americans United and the cause of church-state separation lost a good friend this week.

On Aug. 14, Robert S. Alley died in Richmond, Va. Alley, a humanities professor emeritus at the University of Richmond, was a lifelong advocate of religious liberty and a staunch supporter of Americans United.

Alley, 74, began his career of commitment to church-state separation at a very young age. When he was in the third grade, he and a Jewish student left their public school classroom and sat outside on the steps rather than participate in school-sponsored Christian religious instruction. Alley's father was editor of the state Baptist newspaper and opposed the classes on constitutional principle.

That experience of life as a dissenter made a deep impression on Bob, according to his family, and he never wavered after that in his commitment to freedom of conscience. A true defender of the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he wrote books, lectured and stepped forward to defend church-state separation wherever he could. He was always ready to speak out for freedom of conscience, whether testifying before elected officials or tangling with theocrats such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

In addition to an array of other civil liberties endeavors, Alley served for many years on the Americans United National Advisory Council and he held a post on the AU Board of Trustees from 1994 until 2003.

Bob was particularly incensed when the Religious Right and their allies tried to rewrite American history to enshrine their vision of the United States as a "Christian nation" where other perspectives were unwelcome.

When the venerable Library of Congress put on a religious liberty exhibit and published a dubious paper in 1998 diminishing the historical significance of Jefferson's famous "wall of separation" letter, Alley rallied 24 scholars to sign a joint statement challenging the "unbalanced treatment" reflected in the paper.

Alley told The New York Times why he took action.

"We are concerned for really one fundamental reason," he said. "If you're going to be the keeper of the precious documents of the nation, you ought not to put them on display with biased analysis, and certainly not with a paper that has not been read by its peers and judged for its qualities, and with as many egregious observations of opinion."

At the same time, Alley did not worship the Founders as alabaster saints, but instead saw them as visionary figures whose cause we must take up. He understood that the Religious Right forces assailing individual freedom today must be resisted, just as Jefferson and Madison did so in their age.

"One should not embrace religious freedom in 1985 merely because two prominent Virginians did so two centuries ago," Alley wrote in James Madison on Religious Liberty, a 1985 work he edited. "Rather we develop respect for those individuals and their associates because they espoused principles considered essential to true democracy. This is no game in which each side seeks to uncover old quotes favorable to their cause; it is a confrontation over basic presuppositions, a conflict between democracy and theocracy, both of which have deep roots in our past....

"One does not need to evoke Madison or any person in order to justify an unswerving dedication to the principles of justice and liberty; but we will always require women and men to espouse those rights and freedoms if they are to be secured for posterity," Alley continued. "To such persons, as to Madison, we owe a debt that can only be paid in the currency of continued vigilance regarding the first experiment on our liberties."

Bob Alley was a strong and independent spirit with a mischievous sense of humor. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him. We can best honor him by stepping into the gap his passing leaves in the frontlines of the battle for church-state separation. We pay our debt to him by continued vigilance on behalf of religious liberty.

Bob is survived by his wife Norma, two sons Bob and John and other family members. We extend to the Alley family our deepest condolences. A memorial service is scheduled for Aug. 31 at 4 p.m. in the University of Richmond chapel.