When Rachel Laser arrived at Americans United early this year as our president and CEO, AU staff realized she was part of a welcome trend of women being named to lead organizations in the religious freedom sphere.

Maggie Garrett, AU’s vice president for public policy, thought it would be inspiring and informative to gather several of these women together to talk about their journey to leadership and what they see for the future of church-state separation.

The Freedom Forum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., helped us do just that yesterday: They hosted Rachel and four other women leaders for an event called “Still Rising: The Increasing Role of Women as Heads of Religious Freedom Organizations.”

Melissa Rogers, who served as President Barack Obama’s director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, moderated a panel discussion that included Rachel; Satjeet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition; Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; and Kim Colby, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law & Religious Freedom.

Rachel, who is Jewish, spoke of how her identity as a religious minority and her family’s history of fleeing religious persecution in Eastern Europe inspires her passion for church-state separation.

“I know America wouldn’t be America without the separation of religion and government,” she said. “I feel a sense of security in America, knowing that there’s the separation of religion and government, as a religious minority.”

Amanda and Satjeet – representatives of the oldest and the youngest religious freedom organizations present, respectively – spoke of how the religious intolerance triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks influenced them. Satjeet noted the Sikh Coalition was founded in 2001 amidst the spike in violence and hate directed at Sikhs, Muslims and other religious minorities and people of color.

Protecting religious expression, particularly for religious minorities, was named as a vital mission of all the organizations. Rachel outlined several other priorities for Americans United: protecting public school students from religious coercion and proselytism, preventing public money from being used to fund religion, and ensuring religion is not used to harm others, particularly women, the LGBTQ community and religious minorities.

The latter priority caused the most dissension on the panel, particularly for Kim Colby, whose organization often falls on the opposite side of issues from Americans United and some of the other panelists. The Christian Legal Society supported Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Colorado bakery that refused to bake a gay couple a wedding cake, and Hobby Lobby, the craft store chain that wanted to obstruct employee access to birth control, in their Supreme Court cases.

Rachel and Kim differed on whether the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) – passed with broad support in 1993 to protect religious expression, especially for religious minorities – needs to be updated to clarify that it can’t be used to harm others.

“I think we can all agree that we wouldn’t want to use the concept of religious freedom to be causing harm to other people,” Rachel said. “[RFRA] was envisioned as something that would protect vulnerable populations, [including] religious minorities in this country who haven’t had the same amount of power as religious majorities. But of course all people, all religions come under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And today it’s really been quite weaponized.”

Rachel went on to urge support for the Do No Harm Act, which would restore RFRA to its original intent of preserving protections for religious exercise while clarifying that it may not be used to harm others. 

“We are this diverse nation in so many different ways, and I believe in that diversity. I think it makes us stronger,” Rachel said. “One of the ways that we’re diverse is religiously too. How are we supposed to coexist peacefully and constructively if we are using our individual religious beliefs to carve out exemptions from protections in our laws that we agree are needed to protect vulnerable people in this country?”

The panelists agreed that while there are many differences of opinion on what religious freedom means, the concept is vitally important to all Americans.

“The challenges have never been greater, and the opportunity for new voices, new approaches never more important,” said Kristin Farrington, director of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center.

(Photo: AU's Rachel Laser, left, with fellow panelists Kim Colby, Satjeet Kaur and Amanda Tyler and moderator Melissa Rogers.)