June 2020 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Editor’s Note: Sabrina Dent is Americans United’s new senior faith adviser. In that role, she will work to build support for the work and mission of Americans United among faith communities as well as secular groups.

Before joining Americans United, Dent worked at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum where she managed several of the education initiatives designed for religious and civic leaders. Prior to that, she served as program coordinator for the Doctor of Ministry Program at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University (STVU). She is also the past president of the Interfaith Community of Greater Richmond, a non-profit organization of 20 faith groups and denom­in­ations that is committed to developing respect, understanding and cooperation among the various religions.

Dent earned her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech and a master of divinity degree and doctor of ministry degree from STVU. Her doctoral disser­ta­tion project title was “Bridging the Gap of Race and Interfaith Relations: Con­necting Humanity with Our Stories.”

Dent talked recently about her new position at Americans United with Church & State Editor Rob Boston.

Q. Tell our readers a little about your background – your education and where you’ve worked before coming to Americans United.

Dent: I am a proud native of Pet­ersburg, Virginia. Growing up, I learn­ed how to be a compassionate human being by watching my parents navi­gate the world. They were college sweethearts who raised a working middle-class family with three chil­dren. My dad was an entrepre­neur, captain in the Army Reserves, and Pen­te­costal preacher. At the same time, my mother worked in retail for 30 years and was actively involved with the Girls Scouts and a host of church activities. 

I attended Virginia Tech as an undergraduate student, where I stud­ied residential property manage­ment. Working in the industry for over 10 years helped me to get clarity on what was most important to me – that is, caring about people. Throughout my career, I have worked in many profes­sional capacities (housing, banking, mental health and theological educa­tion) that served people of all back­grounds, including vulnerable people and marginalized groups.

Before coming to Americans Uni­ted, I worked for the Religious Free­dom Center of the Freedom Forum, where I served as the director of pro­grams and partnerships. I had the pleasure of engaging adult learners from many religious identities and none via our various programs and initiatives. However, the job that shaped me as an advocate for human rights was working for Shelter Our Sisters in Bergen County, New Jersey – a nonprofit organization that pro­vides shelter and support services for women and children who were survi­vors of domestic violence.

I valued everything I learned in my role as a volunteer and eventually children’s program director because my help was not based on their reli­gious identities but simply out of my concern for their safety and human needs. Practicing human dignity is my spirituality, and I teach my son to do the same.

Q. What made you want to join the Americans United team?

Dent: Quite honestly, it was Rachel Laser. I knew about AU’s work; yet, her commitment to speaking truth to the experiences of racial and religious minorities and the history of religious freedom issues in America spoke to my heart. Addition­ally, this was some­thing I had addres­sed in my doc­toral work.

At the same time, I had the plea­sure of listening and learning from Maggie Garrett at a distance when the Religious Freedom Center hosted the Com­mittee on Religious Liberty meet­ings. Both of these women are cour­a­geous and brilliant. As someone who has worked with individuals from many religious traditions and none, I valued AU’s position on several key issues, especially the Do No Harm Act. True religious free­dom gives people the right to exercise their freedom of con­science, including freedom from belief without infringing on a per­son’s human rights. AU bold­ly speaks out on these issues.

Q. Obviously, the faith com­munity in the United States is very broad. But where do you think we stand with faith leaders generally when it comes to separation of church and state? Are most supportive? 

Dent: This question can be answered in several ways. Since 1947, AU has consis­tently shown up in the public square ready to protect Ameri­cans’ First Amendment rights that guar­antee the separation of church and state. There have been many Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as Jewish communities that have supported AU’s mission. Although some public narratives may suggest differently by people’s actions, houses of worship do not want the govern­ment telling them how, when, where, what or who to worship. Those things are for that religious group to decide – that’s the point of free exercise and no establishment.

At the same time, there are many racial and minority religious commun­ities that have not engaged AU in any capacity. We need to know where those communities stand and how we can support one another in our advo­cacy efforts. It is challenging to sup­port an endeavor without some type of awareness of its work.

Q. Faith leaders are rightly con­cerned about a lot of issues these days. How can we ensure that separation of church and state doesn’t get over­looked?

Dent: The COVID-19 pandemic has raised so many critical issues as it pertains to the separation of church and state, including white Christian privilege laced with systemic racism.  AU is doing an excellent job of ad­dressing First Amendment concerns about the current administration pro­vi­­ding stimulus relief for religious com­munities, as well as the bans on mass gatherings. While people are paying close attention to those issues, we must continue to sound the alarm on what’s happening regarding immi­gra­tion – especially the Muslim ban – as well as religious discrimin­a­tion that impacts adoption services for LGBTQ families, and public school issues in­cluding the posting of “In God We Trust” on the wall and private school vouchers.

Government funding should go to public schools, which should receive equal and equ­itable treatment. Many religi­ous leaders during the Civil Rights era and now have spoken out on these concerns. Honestly, it takes the voices of all influ­en­tial leaders of moral conscience and grassroots org­anizers to help us spread the word. I always say most times people need to see themselves in the story and the impact on their community to get in­volved.

Q.Thinking along those lines, can you say a few words about the nexus between church-state separation and issues like LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and repro­ductive freedom?

Dent: Religious freedom is layered with issues for many communities, especially women of color and those with low incomes. Issues of reproduc­tive justice, adoption rights and health­ care for women and the LGBTQ com­munity should right­fully be cen­tered in discus­sions about church-state separa­tion.

A religious institution or employ­er shouldn’t take away a person’s right to choose the best health care options for them or how they grow their family. It is the person’s right to exer­cise their freedom of conscience and belief in making those decisions. Consider this: Would you physically take your boss with you into the examining room at the doctor’s office? No, it is a personal matter. Then why should we allow employers or the gov­ernment to make decisions about our health care options or bodies? Why should women allow men to make those decisions? The same goes for whomever people choose to love.

Q. Americans United has always enjoyed broad support from many Christian denominations and Jewish bodies. What about outreach to Mus­lim, Hindu, Buddhist and other faith groups that are out of the Judeo-Christian experience? How do we grow support there?

Dent: Relationships are everything. In my work as an interfaith leader and religious freedom advocate, I made it my business to show up. When you show up to events and programs out­side of your comfort zone or norm, there is the dynamic potential to build meaningful relationships with people and communities. We as people and organizations must develop a healthy sense of curiosity in getting to know our neighbors. I have strong rela­tionships and friendships with indi­vi­duals from the Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu, Muslim, nonbelieving and other communities because I had genuine interest not only hearing their concerns but collaborating in our ef­forts. Show up, be engaged, take ac­tion and repeat.

Q. Your title is senior faith adviser, but I know you’ll be doing some work with the many secular communities that support Americans United. Tell us about that. 

Dent: Yes, I will. I really look for­ward to building relationships with AU’s long-time supporters. Recently, thanks to Nik Nartowicz, AU’s state policy counsel, I had the pleasure of connecting with Rabbi Robert Barr who leads a Humanist Jewish congre­gation in Ohio. It was great learning about their work and how they de­cided that church-state separation would be a social justice priority for them.

At the same time, I am honored to have friends like Mandisa Thomas, president and founder of Black Non­believers, who is a strong advocate and fan of AU’s work.  I will continue to connect with secular communities of all backgrounds to hear their con­cerns. Most importantly, my goal is to figure out how we can walk together in building our advocacy efforts with religious groups on church-state issues. To start, I hope that people will reach out and say hello.

Q. Is there anything you would like to add?

Dent: I am truly delighted to be a part of the AU team. There is so much that I can learn from my colleagues and AU’s supporters along the way. At the same time, I recognize that I bring with me a wealth of resources as a black woman and interfaith colla­bor­ator who thinks intersection­ally about the issues of religious freedom and church-state separation. In the last five years, I have learned that there will be difficult and un­com­fortable conversa­tions around the table about what this means through the historical lens of some com­munities and even this current moment – but these conversa­tions are necessary. Addressing church­-state issues should not simply be trans­actional but transformational if we are an organization truly commit­­ted to education, advocacy and social justice. With that, I embrace this new journey.

Note: If you are a member of the clergy or a nontheistic celebrant/ ­chaplain  who would like to work with Americans United to defend religious freedom and separation of religion and government, please email Dent at dent@au.org.