When my great-grandparents fled the Russian Empire at the turn of the 19th century, they were escaping poverty, war and religious persecution. Without any legal protection provided to ethno-religious minorities such as Jews, the Russian government not only encouraged their systematic targeting and abuse but mandated it by law.

Arriving in America, my family was finally free of such devastating oppression – or so they thought. The open arms they may have expected morphed into “Jews Not Allowed” signs hung outside establishments across the country. Legal religious and racial discrimination was ubiquitous. Of course, Baltimore and New York City were no Czarist Russia or Nazi Germany; despite the codified discrimination, these communities were relatively safe for Jews. Yet, the dream of a country in which all people are free to practice or abstain from religion without discrimination or fear for their safety had simply not yet been achieved.  

Never did I think my liberty in this country would be threatened for being Jewish. In my mind, anti-Semitism and religious discrimination in the United States was relegated to the bygone era of my grandparents: 10-cent movie tickets and the Ku Klux Klan. However, the recent tectonic shift in the federal government as the result of the election of a president who parrots Christian nationalism only concretized what has been happening for years in state and local legislatures throughout the U.S. The Religious Right has taken a sledgehammer to the wall of separation between religion and government from state to state – and now at the national level – introducing and implementing hundreds of laws and government policies favoring Christianity as well as targeting non-Christians, including members of other religious faiths and the non-religious community.

That is why I joined Americans United – to assist AU’s efforts to reinforce the separation of church and state and combat extremist policies, whether they be permission for health care workers to deny care to patients based on the workers’ religious beliefs or government funding of Christian Bible classes in public school.

As AU President and CEO Rachel Laser likes to say, religious freedom should be a shield that protects people, not a sword used to harm others. Rather than institute government support of discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, women or religious minorities, our elected leaders should be strengthening true religious freedom: the freedom to pray or not to pray to whomever or whatever one so chooses; the freedom to access health care regardless of one’s religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, race, etc.; and the freedom to attend public school without being subjected to religious proselytizing.

I know the value of religion. Having attended Jewish day school, I learned to explore and grapple with my own religious identity as a young person. I also know its bite – the pain and suffering that can be inflicted under the guise of government-sponsored religion.

Our country was designed as a safe haven from religious persecution, and it is our patriotic and moral duty to ensure that we commit to that ideal in its fullest capacity. And, without doubt, that ideal’s most crucial element is the absolute separation of the government from religion in all its capacities.

I look forward to defending that principle this summer.

Zachary Freiman, a rising senior at Pomona College majoring in public policy analysis and music, is interning in Americans United’s Communications Department this summer.