Over the years I’ve worked at Americans United, it has been my honor and pleasure to meet several people who served as plaintiffs in church-state lawsuits.
James McCollum was a student in an Illinois public school when his mother, Vashti, challenged a program that allowed members of the clergy to come into the schools to offer ostensibly voluntary religious instruction. Ellery Schempp was a high school student in the Philadelphia area who challenged official school prayer and Bible reading. Roy Torcaso fought to end religious qualifications to become a notary public in Maryland. Daniel and Deborah Weisman took on school-sponsored prayers led by clergy at a Rhode Island public high school graduation.
All those cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not every case reaches that level, but they’re still important. In Dover, Pa., Tammy Kitzmiller and a band of parents and taxpayers banded together to fight “intelligent design” creationism in their public school. In Alabama, attorney Melinda Maddox was one of the plaintiffs who challenged Roy Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments at a judicial building in Montgomery. Americans United helped bring both of those cases. My work was modest – I wrote about the cases for Church & State and helped publicize them in the media – but I was happy to have played even that minor role.
It takes courage to bring a church-state case in the courts. Some people who have done it have been harassed. But people who know that their rights are being violated aren’t going to let some nasty phone calls or rude e-mails stop them. They’re determined to make things right, and with the help of Americans United and other groups, they do.
Of course, not everyone is suited to go to court – or is ever compelled to go. If you’re lucky, your rights will never be violated in a way that makes a courtroom visit necessary. So people often ask me, “What else can I do?”
A lot, actually. Americans United chapters are great outlets for activism. Chapters keep an eye on local situations and often serve to represent AU before state and local legislative bodies. Join up!
If there’s not a chapter in your area, you can get involved in other ways. At AU’s website (www.au.org), you can sign up for alerts. We may ask you from time to time to contact your members of Congress or state legislators about a problematic bill or proposal, sign a petition or take some other action.
Keeping us informed is important. If there’s a problem in your public schools, local government or state, let us know. We might be able to help.
You can also use our materials to defend church-state separation. Here’s a recent example: During the debate over the tax bill, Republicans in Congress pushed to add a provision that would have undercut the Johnson Amendment, a provision in federal law that prohibits house of worship and other nonprofits from intervening in politics by endorsing or opposing candidates. Americans United mobilized clergy and laypeople to defend the Johnson Amendment.
AU members relied on our arguments to write letters to the editor and debunk spurious claims being made about the amendment. Activities like this help educate the public, which is very important. We’re all bombarded with information these days, but not all of it is accurate. Sometimes, we need our AU members to help us set the record straight.
Financial support is another option. Americans United is a nonprofit and is supported by its members. We rely on voluntary contributions to meet our budget. Those of you reading are among our core supporters, and I thank you profusely for that.
Lastly, you can spread the word about Americans United. If you’re on Facebook, share our posts with your friends. Twitter users can retweet or like our tweets. For those who prefer a more traditional approach, we can provide additional copies of Church & State and AU publications for you to distribute to friends and family members who might be interested in AU’s work. (Also, the electronic version of Church & State is posted online at AU.org the first day of the month. That link can be copied and shared.)
We’re all busy these days, and sometimes we can feel overwhelmed. I always tell AU members to find their own comfort level for activism. Some folks like to take to the streets, others less so.
It doesn’t matter whether your activism is street-, web- or even armchair-based. Whenever you speak up, we all benefit.
Rob Boston is interim executive director-communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.