AU attorneys Kelly Percival and Andrew Nellis are finishing up their two-year legal fellowships with Americans United this month. We asked them to reflect on their time protecting the wall of separation between church and state:
This week marks my last as a fellow with Americans United’s Legal Department. It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since I first became immersed in the always unpredictable world of church-state separation. The work has proven challenging, but it has also felt more important than ever.
During my time at AU, I told the U.S. Supreme Court why it’s not OK for a bakery to refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. While the Supreme Court didn’t actually end up deciding that issue this time around, you can bet that one of the myriad cases pending in the lower courts involving a business that wants to discriminate will make it to the high court soon. It gives me great comfort to know that the AU team will be there to say what we’ve said before and will continue to say: “Religion should never be used to harm others.”
I also wound up fighting something that I never expected to see in my lifetime: A ban on people of a minority faith enacted by the highest representative of the United States government. President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban – three versions of which he has signed since taking office – is an indefensible stain on America’s tradition of religious tolerance, and I have no doubt that history will judge it as such. That’s just one of the many reasons why AU is not done fighting the ban.
I will leave AU proud of the work that I have accomplished. But I will leave most proud of the people that I’ve had the honor of representing: A lesbian couple in West Virginia who went to get a marriage license only to leave the courthouse in tears after the county clerk called them an “abomination”; a feisty student group at the University of Notre Dame that refuses to let the university elevate its religious beliefs over the health needs of faculty and students; and individual students willing to risk their academic futures in the name of women’s health and equality.
I will leave AU proud of the work that I have accomplished. But I will leave most proud of the people that I’ve had the honor of representing.
These brave individuals allow AU to do its vital work. We may believe in the wall of separation, but it is our clients who risk their health and safety to build up that wall, brick by brick. To them, and to the passionate team at AU who will continue fighting the good fight, I will remain forever grateful.
Like Kelly, I too will soon be taking the next step in my legal career and leaving Americans United. And although I’m excited for the future, it’s a tough time to step away from AU.
Under the leadership of AU’s new President and CEO Rachel Laser, AU is placing new emphasis on reaching out to the next generation of church-state separationists. We’re taking a hard look at where we’re successful, where we can improve, and what new tactics we should be trying. Although I’m stepping away, I’ll be very interested to watch how AU continues to grow and respond to the changing political landscape.
Meanwhile, the threats to the separation of religion and government are as strong as ever. Most immediately, Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court threatens the continued existence of the basic constitutional principles that AU and its supporters hold dear.
At the same time, the Trump-Pence administration continues to push harmful policies in the name of “religious liberty” that in reality are anything but. Just last week, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force.” As we’ve explained, this task force won’t be working to support the wall of separation, which is what protects the cornerstone American principle of religious freedom for all. Rather, the Trump administration will be laboring to undermine antidiscrimination laws so that the religious fundamentalists who compose Trump’s political base can impose their views on the rest of us.
Without a doubt, there’s a tough road ahead for defenders of the separation of church and state, but I know that Americans United is rising to the challenge. I’m happy to be starting a new chapter in my career, but it’s bittersweet that I’ll no longer be out here on the front lines with AU.
Without a doubt, there’s a tough road ahead for defenders of the separation of church and state, but I know that Americans United is rising to the challenge.
Of course, you don’t have to work here to be part of the fight. Please help AU continue its work by becoming a member or renewing your membership today.
Editor’s note: If you want to hear more from Andrew and Kelly, they were featured quite a bit in our Facebook Live videos from the past two years, joining our other attorneys in explaining AU’s legal work. We’ll be introducing you to our two newest legal fellows soon. Any recent law-school graduates or third-year law students interested in applying for AU’s legal fellowship program can learn more here.