Empowering Activists

AU’s Annual Meeting Helps Religious Freedom Advocates Build Skills To Maintain The Church-State Wall

Church-state separation advocates followed a night of celebrating Americans United’s past by planning for its future.

On Nov. 3, the day after AU’s gala event honoring Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and AU’s 70th anniversary, dozens of activists and supporters from across the country gathered for AU’s Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss the state of religious freedom in America, share strategies for grassroots advocacy and prepare for future attacks on church-state separation.

“The Annual Meeting has evolved over the years, but it has consistently been a great opportunity to bring together AU’s most dedicated volunteers,” AU Interim Field Director David Morris said. “Participants are excited to meet the staff and interact with each other.

“We had an ambitious schedule for the day,” Morris added. “Our goal was to give our volunteers information that they can use to enhance the work they’re doing for AU at the local level.”

Representatives of two AU chapters – Allison Mahaley from the North Carolina Chapter and Houston Chapter President Nancy Friedman – presented advice they’d learned from two training sessions on grassroots organizing that AU sponsored with Midwest Academy.

Mahaley said the training offered concrete steps for advancing from talking about goals to accomplishing them.

“Direct action – this is where ‘the rubber meets the road,’ and you can put together a strategy to challenge existing power. And this is where we want to move,” she said. “This idea that when an issue arises, we will have the tools and the toolset and the people organized so we can take direct action, I think is really, really important. When we know that someone we’ve elected is about to vote on something, we have to be already organized and ready to take direct action.

“You don’t win by just being right,” Mahaley added. “Public policy is set by people who have power. And right now we’re in an atmosphere where we have to really make our power known. Organizing is about getting that power back.”

Friedman, who also serves on AU’s Board of Trustees, said the Hous­ton Chapter has been incorporating the strategies its members learned as they lobbied Congress to protect the Johnson Amendment, the provision of the federal tax code that protects our elections and nonprofits, including houses of worship, by ensuring that tax-exempt organizations don’t endorse or oppose political candidates.

Friedman said Houston Chapter members met with their representative’s staff over the summer to educate them about the importance of the Johnson Amendment. They have also been participating in AU’s action alerts to contact members of Congress this fall as legislators consider measures to undermine that law.

Friedman also stressed the usefulness of identifying and working with allies, remarking, “Coalitions are also important. We have been trying to … forge connections with other organizations as well as with the faith community in Houston.”

The Annual Meeting offered other training sessions to help the activists to hone their skills. Bill Mefford and Erin Hagen, AU’s faith outreach coordinator and youth coordinator respectively, led a discussion on how AU’s chapters can identify and amplify their members’ skills to become more effective.

Katherine Stewart, a journalist who wrote The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children and a recent appointee to AU’s National Leadership Council, led a session on helping activists improve communication with the media, including writing op-ed columns.

Samantha Sokol, AU’s legislative assistant, outlined several methods for activists to assist AU in educating lawmakers about constituents’ positions on religious-freedom legislation. Those methods included participating in AU action alerts that allow people to contact their representatives directly; in-person meetings with legislators or their staff; petition drives; and the Faith Voices campaign for faith leaders to emphasize to Congress and President Donald Trump their support for the Johnson Amendment.

Sokol’s presentation was part of a larger session with AU’s Legislative Department, during which Legislative Director Maggie Garrett explained how AU prioritizes the state and federal legislation the organization lobbies for and against.

Garrett also updated the gathering on the attacks against the Johnson Amendment, while Federal Legislative Counsel Elise Helgesen Aguilar spoke about the status of private school voucher schemes at the federal and state levels. Assistant Legislative Director Dena Sher highlighted AU’s Protect Thy Neighbor campaign, which battles attempts to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against and harm others.

AU’s Legal Department briefed attendees on pending litigation and how activists on the ground help Ameri­cans United learn about church-state violations throughout the country. Legal Fellow Alison Tanner discussed several recent lawsuits AU has filed, and Staff Attorney Ian Smith explained how he responds to the multitude of church-state violations that are reported to AU.

Legal Director Richard B. Katskee thanked the activists for not only reporting potential attacks on religious freedom, but also for their work in their home communities. Katskee said their diligence creates awareness that allows victims of these attacks to learn about AU and trust the organization to help them when their rights are violated.

Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society and a guest speaker at the Annual Meeting, also addressed the worrisome threats to religious freedom and echoed many of the suggestions for action.

During a question-and-answer session, Peter Zupan, an activist and member of AU’s Youth Advisory Coun­cil, asked about practical steps that average citizens can take, such as writing letters to the editor, spreading awareness [in other ways such as by calling radio talk shows], contacting lawmakers and supporting progressive organizations.

“All of those things would go a long way,” replied Fredrickson. She added that activists should also continually monitor the legislators who are typically backers of church-state separation – either by thanking them when they vote in favorable ways or by holding them accountable when they don’t.

Zupan was one of several youth leaders who attended the Annual Meeting. Another member, Amanda Scott, was honored with AU’s David Norr Youth Activist Award.

“Amanda is a passionate advocate for the separation of church and state and religious freedom,” said the Rev. Dr. Neal R. Jones, president of AU’s Board of Trustees. “For the past two years, she’s served on our Youth Advisory Council and advised the organization on how to reach out and engage more young people.”

Scott told the crowd about one of her first exposures to church-state separation in 2014 when she was about 20 years old, advocating against the display of an “In God We Trust” sign at a government building in Mobile County.

“That went about as well as you’d expect in Mobile, Alabama,” Scott said, listing the threats and insults that were directed her way.

“I learned a lot from that experience,” Scott said. “I definitely developed a thick skin. You can’t let fear control your life. That’s a very important lesson. … I still did what I thought was right, and it was worth all the risk I took.

“I’ve been very empowered from these experiences,” added Scott, who has also advocated for women’s and LGBTQ rights and is currently attending Georgetown University aspiring to become a civil-rights lawyer. She said she’s been “doing whatever I could to make my community better wherever I was.”

AU’s Hagen said she was thrilled that Scott, Zupan and several additional youth activists were able to attend the Annual Meeting and are getting involved in Americans United.

“The Youth Advisory Council is one of the reasons I’m so very hopeful about the future of AU and church-state separation,” Hagen said. “This group of young people – ranging from high school students to law school students and beyond – come from many different religious and non-religious backgrounds, and they each are so passionate about defending religious freedom. I’m so grateful to get to work with them and to learn from them.”

Also during the meeting, AU’s board lauded Lynn for his 25 years of service and presented him with framed copies of historic American documents, including the Constitution. During remarks, Lynn thanked the board and staff, telling attendees, “I feel like you are my second family. You really are. I have tremendous appreciation for everyone who’s a part of this family. … This family has pulled together on behalf of keeping the principle of church-state separation alive.”

The board also announced that as the search for Lynn’s replacement continues, AU Director of Communications Rob Boston and Managing Director Christine Colburn will serve as interim co-executive directors. (Bos­ton, who began working at Americans United in November of 1987, received recognition for his 30 years of service and made brief remarks.)

All in all, Morris said, the 2017 Annual Meeting was a productive event that showcased the commitment of AU’s staff, members and supporters as the organization moves into its 71st year.

“This has been a particularly tough year for us, dealing with the Trump administration while also undergoing internal transitions as an organization,” Morris said. “Regardless of the challenges, our staff and volunteers remain as determined as ever.”