February marks Black History Month, a time to remember that people of color, especially African Americans, have, throughout American history, had to work hard to gain a seat at the table to shape our nation.
The United States’ long history of racism and systematic oppression threatens to obscure the significant accomplishments that people of color have made to advance our country and society – including fighting for church-state separation and religious freedom.
When the U.S. Constitution was written, the rights prescribed applied predominantly to land-owning white men, while African Americans, women and other marginalized groups later had to struggle to amend the Constitution for explicit inclusion.
The election of President Donald J. Trump has once more revamped white Christian nationalism in the public eye. It’s a reminder that throughout American history, religious zealots have often used their version of faith to claim African Americans are unworthy of social, political and economic equality, with many attempting to weave an interpretation of the Bible that justified slavery, segregation and the denial of basic civil rights into law.
White supremacists have even attempted to deny the basic right of religious freedom to African Americans. These include groups like the Ku Klux Klan with its racist interpretation of Christianity and others responsible for terrorist attacks targeting black churches. From 1963’s Birmingham church bombing to 2015’s Charleston church shooting, the fight for African Americans’ right to worship, or not to worship, freely and safely continues to present challenges.
This Black History Month, we are highlighting the important role African-American figures have played, and continue to play, in promoting true religious freedom and church-state separation.
Shoring up separation in court
Two unsung African-American heroes of church-state separation are civil rights activists Alton Lemon and Ishmael Jaffree. Lemon and Jaffree were plaintiffs in two important U.S. Supreme Court cases – Lemon v. Kurtzman and Wallace v. Jaffree.
In the Lemon case decided in 1971, the plaintiffs successfully argued that a Pennsylvania law that diverted taxpayer money to sectarian schools for various programs was unconstitutional. The ruling spawned the famous “Lemon Test” that is still used to decide church-state cases today.
While the Lemon Test has been somewhat eroded by subsequent Supreme Courts, its core finding remains intact – namely that any law is deemed to run afoul of church-state separation if it violates any one of three tenets: lacking a secular legislative purpose, having the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion or fostering excessive entanglement between church and state.
Lemon, an Army veteran, earned degrees in mathematics and social work. He held government jobs and was active in the NAACP and the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia. He was among several taxpayer plaintiffs in this landmark case. (Americans United was an institutional plaintiff.) He died in May 2013. Lemon’s New York Times obituary recalled his having been distressed to see church-state separation losing ground in federal courts.
Jaffree, a former child evangelist who became an agnostic, helped affirm the principle that public schools may not meddle in students’ religious lives in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) when he successfully challenged an Alabama law that allowed ostensibly “silent” prayer organized by teachers in public schools.
Years after the Supreme Court’s rulings striking down school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in 1962 and ’63, some state legislatures were still trying to find ways around those decisions by mandating that school days begin with moments of silence for prayer. Alabama’s law, the high court ruled, was problematic because it encouraged impressionable youngsters to pray. The court noted that when the law was being debated, legislators openly boasted about using it as a vehicle to circumvent the court’s previous rulings against school prayer.
Jaffree, a Mobile attorney, said he saw the case as one of parental rights. He did not want his three children pressured to take part in religious activities in a public school. He also viewed litigation as unavoidable.
“Because of my philosophy of nonconformity, it was inevitable that I would probably bring a case like this someday,” Jaffree told Lagniappe, a Mobile newspaper, in 2014. “But I had no idea this case was going to develop the way it did.”
Both Lemon and Jaffree had a strong history of civil rights activism. While fighting for racial equality, they fought for religious equality by ensuring that government has no right to sponsor any specific religion while excluding people of minority religions or no religion. This intersectionality of activism is prevalent throughout the civil rights movement, especially when defining “religious freedom.”
Reclaiming the true definition of religious freedom
Past and present, many African-American figures have fought to ensure that religious freedom means the right to believe or not, and that it’s not an excuse to discriminate.
Abolitionist Sojourner Truth challenged the idea that religion can be used as a vehicle to suppress rights. Her 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron attacked the idea that religious beliefs justified oppression of women.
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him,” Truth, according to transcripts, famously said.
Among the most prolific of civil rights activists to follow in Truth’s path was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., widely considered the greatest religious figure within the American civil rights movement. A Baptist preacher from Atlanta, King often used spirituality to advocate and preach that all people were created equal – but his movement was open to non-Christians and non-believers.
Prominent in King’s legacy is the precept that the society that fosters true religious freedom is one where people can worship freely or not worship at all – while not using faith as an excuse to discriminate against others for belonging to the wrong race or gender, or professing unpopular ideas or causes.
Though best known for battling white supremacists and segregationists, King notably advocated for women’s access to birth control at a time when many religious groups were trying to restrict it. In 1966, Planned Parenthood gave him an award “in recognition of excellence and leadership in furthering reproductive health and reproductive rights.”
King also opposed mandatory prayer in public schools. In a January 1965 interview, King told Playboy magazine that the Supreme Court’s decisions to strike down government-sponsored prayer in public schools were “correct” and noted that his nemesis, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, took the opposite view.
Another civil rights icon of similar stature was Malcolm X, whose original name was Malcolm Little. One of the most important Muslim figures in American history, Malcolm X often warned that religious believers should not restrict the rights of others.
“I believe in a religion that believes in freedom,” he said. In an April 1964 speech in Detroit, he said, “Islam is my religion, but I believe my religion is my personal business. It governs my personal life, my personal morals. And my religious philosophy is personal between me and the God in whom I believe; just as the religious philosophy of these others is between them and the God in whom they believe. And this is best this way.”
The legacies of King, Sojourner Truth and others have impacted faith leaders to this day, like the Rev. William Barber II, a civil rights activist, author and member of the NAACP who built on the momentum of social justice work in North Carolina to expand his grass-roots activism nationwide.
When the Trump administration implemented some policies (and attempted to implement others) harmful to religious minorities, women and LGBTQ people, Barber became the charismatic face of a movement of religious leaders standing up to bigotry. (See “Singing from a Different Hymnal,” Oct. 2017 Church & State.)
Some have compared Barber to King. Cornel West, a well-known Princeton professor of philosophy and Christian practice, called him “the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in our midst.”
Barber has lashed out at the Religious Right: “It hurts me to say the so-called Values Summit is not about Judeo-Christian values; it’s not about Christianity, but about the values of the heretical, rhetorical extremism, funded by a whole lot of money,” he declared in advance of the 2017 Values Voter Summit. “Their values are cash and not Christ, greed and not grace.”
This philosophy has not fallen on deaf ears. Many African-American lawmakers in Congress routinely stand against religion-based discrimination. Among the most outspoken defenders of church-state separation in the U.S. House of Representatives is U.S. Rep. Robert “Bobby” C. Scott (D-Va.).
In 2016, Scott teamed up with U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.) to introduce the Do No Harm Act. This legislation, which was reintroduced in 2017, would amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. Americans United is among the groups backing the Do No Harm Act.
Although the original sponsors of RFRA never intended it to allow religion to be used as an excuse to harm others, some courts have interpreted it that way. RFRA would continue to provide important protections for religious exercise, but the Do No Harm Act specifies that RFRA may not be used to harm others in the name of religion.
“Civil rights are a compelling government interest and worthy of our strongest support under the law and should not be superseded in the name of religious liberty. Civil rights, labor laws, and access to health care should not be violated in the name of religious freedom under RFRA,” Scott said in a July 13 statement after the reintroduction of the Do No Harm Act.
Scott has been a consistent voice for separation of church and state in other contexts. He has voted against school voucher plans, opposed school prayer amendments and in 2011 was one of few voices in Congress to oppose a symbolic resolution lauding “In God We Trust” as the national motto.
“We are debating whether or not to affirm and proliferate a motto that was adopted in 1956 and is under no threat of attack,” Scott asserted. “In addition to diverting attention away from substantive issues, the resolution is unconstitutional.”
As the ranking member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Scott is pushing back on the private school voucher schemes that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Trump are eagerly prioritizing over public education.
“The U.S. Department of Education’s top priority should be to support state and local education leaders in providing a quality public education, from pre-K through college, for all students – regardless of where they live, how much money their parents make, or how they learn,” Scott said. “Despite the lack of evidence proving the effectiveness of vouchers, the Secretary is proposing to divert taxpayer dollars to private schools and for-profit interests through the use of supplemental priorities. This is not aligned with the will of Congress nor taxpayers.”
When criticizing government funding of religious organizations through the faith-based initiative, Scott emphasized that taxpayer money should not go to organizations that discriminate against others because of their religion.
“I don’t think most people expect that you can apply for a job paid for by the federal government and be told, ‘Oh, no, we don’t hire people of your religion,’” he said.
Legendary civil rights activist U.S. Rep. John D. Lewis (D-Ga.) has also been insistent that taxpayer money shouldn’t go to organizations that discriminate against others or trample on the religious freedom rights of religious minorities.
“I think there has to be a strong wall, a solid wall between church and state,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to see religious groups out trying to convert or proselytize with federal dollars.”
Another civil rights icon in Congress, U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), is an anti-voucher advocate in Congress. She was the first woman appointed as Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and during her time there she worked on numerous issues, including religious discrimination.
Holmes Norton has strongly opposed the D.C. voucher program, which is the only federally-funded voucher program in the country. She’s also been a critic of government-sponsored prayers and religious discrimination.
She co-sponsored the Freedom of Religion Act in 2017, which would ensure that immigrants, refugees and international travelers are not barred from entering the United States solely because of their religion. More recently, Holmes Norton fought to protect a D.C. anti-discrimination law, the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their reproductive health care decisions – a law that the far-right has been attempting to prevent from being enforced.
Advocating for the integrity of houses of worship
In 1965, Lewis was nearly beaten to death by Alabama state troopers and other law enforcement officials who attacked civil rights activists who were participating in a peaceful 54-mile voting rights march from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol building in Montgomery.
Before the march that day, known to historians as “Bloody Sunday,” hundreds of civil rights activists prayed at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma. Many houses of worship played a big role in providing a haven not only to worship but to discuss and mobilize strategies to address social injustice. The emphasis was on issues, not candidates.
Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986. His record as a public servant and civil rights activist is hefty and marked by advocacy for important legislation.
That includes his support for the Johnson Amendment, a 63-year-old provision in federal law that protects the integrity of elections and tax-exempt nonprofits – including houses of worship. It’s a law that, in year one of his presidency, Trump vowed to “totally destroy.”
When House Republicans were attempting to repeal or weaken the Johnson Amendment through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Lewis, who has been a longtime champion of the law and an ally of Americans United, offered an amendment to strip the harmful language from the bill.
Although this amendment failed, language that repealed the Johnson Amendment was never added to the Senate version or the final version that was signed into law.
In his passionate defense of the law, Lewis emphasized that the Johnson Amendment protects the integrity of houses of worship from politicians who seek to use sacred spaces as political tools. He also thanked multiple nonprofits, including AU, for their advocacy to protect the Johnson Amendment.
“This bill before us would pit neighbors against neighbors, worshippers against worshippers, and volunteers against volunteers,” Lewis said during the House Ways and Means Committee markup of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
Holmes Norton, like Lewis, is a fierce defender of the Johnson Amendment and echoed the sentiment that houses of worship serve communities, not candidates. “Clergy are among our most powerful groups and know how to make their voices heard to protect their unique place in American society, and the overwhelming majority of clergy oppose repealing the Johnson Amendment,” she said in a May statement after Trump had signed a “religious freedom” executive order that he claimed (incorrectly) would weaken enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. “Clergy already enjoy great leeway in their houses of worship when it comes to political speech, and some of the most political figures in our country are ministers and rabbis.”
Getting history right
Whitewashing history is not new to any particular administration or generation. But in administrations like Trump’s where diversity is lacking and social justice is not on the agenda, statements that make historians face-palm are not uncommon.
In February of 2017, for example, DeVos said that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” proving she doesn’t understand the history of the private school voucher schemes she and Trump are pushing ahead of public schools.
“They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education,” DeVos said in a statement after Trump met leaders of HBCUs. “They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.”
This rightfully drew condemnation from civil rights activists, who were quick to inform DeVos that HBCUs were founded because, during segregation, African-American students were refused admission to other schools.
Wade Henderson, the former president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of which Americans United is a member, explained that “HBCUs were created in response to a racist system of segregation that saw the education of black people as a threat to white supremacy – a belief central to slavery – and that refused to allow black people to participate in the education system available only to white people.”
The irony is that private school voucher schemes were first devised during the era of public school desegregation as a vehicle to ensure the continuance of whites-only schools. After the Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, officials in some counties, notably in Virginia, closed their public schools and gave white parents financial assistance to send their children to private segregated academies.
Today, voucher schemes remain a threat to civil rights and religious freedom because they don’t provide the same rights and protections to students as public schools, and selectively choose which students to serve. Studies also revealed that racial segregation is higher in private schools, and that school voucher schemes favor white children.
This is one of the reasons why AU remains a leader in the fight against private school vouchers, including as the co-chair of the National Coalition for Public Education.
While these luminaries’ contributions don’t encompass the full impact African Americans have made in shaping church-state separation and religious freedom history, remembering and appreciating how important figures and events have guided the nation is essential in ensuring that history is read from diverse narratives – and that these important contributions are never overlooked.