June 2021 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser last month announced the formation of a new initiative aimed at members of the clergy: AU’s Faith Advisory Council (FAC).

The goal of the FAC is to strengthen AU’s voice and reach in faith communities and make it clear that separation of church and state protects religious freedom. The FAC will be composed of religious leaders from across the country who represent a diversity of faiths, gender identities, races and theological and religious expressions. 

The FAC will:

• Shape AU’s work to make sure that it is inclusive and resonant with a broader audience.

• Help AU strategize in the organization’s movement-building through opening new doors to influential faith leaders and their communities.

• Amplify the voices of faith leaders and make AU’s work – and the organization’s importance to the faith community – more visible to media, elected leaders and the religious freedom community at key moments.

The creation of the FAC is in line with longstanding historical trends. Faith leaders have played a crucial role in upholding religious freedom and the separation of church and state since America’s founding period.

Roger Williams, an iconoclastic 17th century Puritan minister who later became a Baptist and after that a spiritual seeker, was an early advocate for religious freedom and separation between religion in government, a concept he called “soul liberty.” Williams founded Rhode Island, where the government endorsed no state church, and advocates of many faiths lived side by side in peace.

In the post-revolutionary era, as the new American government took form, the fiery Baptist cleric John Leland helped bring down official state churches in Virgina, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Leland, a close ally of Thomas Jefferson, once opined, “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.”

The FAC also honors Americans United’s history and the organization’s roots in the religious community. AU was founded in 1947 by a coalition of Protestant religious leaders, Jewish activists and others. They joined forces with leaders of secular communities to buttress the traditional American principle of separation of religion and government.

AU’s first executive director, Dr. Glenn L. Archer, was an attorney, law school dean and a Methodist lay leader. The AU leaders who followed him, including Andrew Leigh Gunn, R.G. Puckett, Robert L. Maddox and Barry W. Lynn, were ordained members of the clergy, representing Meth­odist, Southern Baptist and Uni­ted Church of Christ faith communities. Over the years, clergy members of various denominations have served on AU’s Board of Trustees and other leadership bodies. (Laser, AU’s current president, is Jewish and the first non-Christian to lead the organization.)

Americans United has always been a broad coalition with strong support from secularists and secular communities. AU values those ties and has longed worked to forge a powerful network of support that includes religious and non-religious people.

In the case of faith communities, AU believes this support is important because the principle of church-state separation has come under increasing attack from Christian nationalists who often frame their objections in theological language.

With that thought in mind, Laser felt the time was right to launch the FAC. Its members include: Rabbi Thomas Alpert, Temple Etz Chaim, Franklin, Mass.; Rabbi Robert Barr, Congregation Beth Adam, Loveland, Ohio; Sabrina Dent, senior faith adviser at Americans United; the Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister, Circle Sanctuary, Barneveld, Wisc.; the Rev. David Key, Lake Oconee Community Church, Athens, Ga.; the Rev. Alex Patchin McNeill, More Light Presbyterians, Ashe­ville, N.C.; Maggie Siddiqi, senior director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Prog­ress; the Rev. Lori Walke, senior pastor, Mayflower Congre­gational Church, Oklahoma City and the Rev. Naomi Washington-Leap­heart, adjunct professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, Villanova, Pa.  

Church & State asked members of the FAC to offer some thoughts on their involvement with Americans United:

Naomi Washington-Leapheart: I was born into a family that has been active in Christian congregations for generations. But it was only after I began to discern my own call to the vocation of ministry that I discovered that faith could be a freedom and not merely a restraint. Since then, I’ve worked to cultivate spaces of spiritual courage - spaces where people take the risk of being fully free as they maintain their faithfulness - in my roles at POWER Interfaith, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and Villanova University. 

I first began to work with AU because of my concern that freedom in faith has been distorted to defend moral superiority and political and social exclusion. I accept this opportunity to serve on the FAC because I believe that while all religious perspectives may be protected from governmental interference, all actions done in the name of religion are not. Why? Because actions reverberate within a community, and we have a duty to ensure that all people in our community can thrive.

Tom Alpert: I’m a rabbi, and I’m part of the Reform Movement of Judaism. I was ordained in 2000 by the Hebrew Union College-Jew­ish Institute of Religion and have served congregations, mainly in the Boston area, since that time. Before my ordination, I practiced law. For several years, I’ve served as the amicus brief coordinator for the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform rabbinical organization). In that role, I’ve led the Conference to join several Supreme Court and other briefs written by Americans United.

Knowing AU’s work, I was glad to say yes when I was asked to help inaugurate the Faith Advisory Council. As members of a minority faith in the United States, and indeed in most of the world for the past 2,000 years, Jews know the dangers of blurring the separation of religion and government. We have thrived in America when there has been a robust public sphere. I look forward to learning from other faith traditions on the FAC. And I look forward to bringing a faith perspective to show why keeping religion and government separate is best for both religion and government.

David Key: I am a Southern Bap­­tist ordained minister and the founding pastor of the multi-denominational Lake Oco­nee Community Church. Our church has a sister relationship with a Reform Jewish synagogue, Lake Oconee Congregation Chai. I am active in Roman Catholic, mainline and evangelical circles. For 17 years, I was the director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.  

I am excited about being on the inaugural FAC. Historically, Baptists have been at the forefront of the conversation around church-state separation. We are better as a country and as faith communities when we honor a healthy separation. I look forward to the conversations and activities to continue advocating that position

Selena Fox: I am senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Nature Spirituality church serving Wiccans, Druids, Animists and other Pagans worldwide since 1974.  I have a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Wisconsin and do holistic spiritual counseling and Nature therapy as part of ministry services as well as diversity education,    interfaith collaboration, chaplaincy administration and religious accom­mo­­dation consulting. 

Through my work as executive director of the Lady Liberty League, I am on the frontlines of the quest for religious freedom and equal rights for Nature religion practitioners and groups in the United States and other countries. Since my undergraduate student days at the College of William and Mary in the 1960s, I have been an activist for social justice, racial and gender equality and environmental pres­ervation. 

I have worked with Am­er­icans Uni­ted for Separation of Church and State in various ways for more than 15 years and look forward to serving on the Faith Advisory Council. I appreciate, celebrate, and support AU’s long history of converging those of diverse religious, spiritual and phil­osophical orientations and political affiliations to uphold religious liberty and church-state separation.

Robert Barr: I am the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Adam and Our JewishCommunity (the congregation’s online initiative), having served the independent liberal congregation for over 40 years. I have had a variety of leadership roles in the Cincinnati Jewish community as well as being engaged in interfaith rela­tions. In 2017, I became only the third rabbi in our nation to ever run for the United States Congress.

My commitment to separation of church and state and the encroachment of religion into public space spans my entire career. Having served on the Ohio Board of People For the American Way and as vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Cincinnati, I spoke extensively on church-state issues, including textbook censorship and the rise of creationism. German Public Radio took me to the Creation Museum for my reaction for a program they produced on what they saw as an American phenomenon.  

I am pleased to be a member of Americans United’s Faith Advisory Council. Regrettably, we are seeing an erosion of the wall between church and state that has been so vital for our nation. I look forward to working with AU and different faiths to ensure that the fundamental principle of separation of church and state remains strong.

Alex Patchin McNeill: I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. I have served as executive director at More Light Presbyterians since 2013. More Light is a national organization working for over 45 years to empower and equip individuals, congregations, and the Presbyterian Church to live into inclusion for LGBTQIA+ people. Throughout my career working at the intersection of faith and LGBTQIA+ justice, I have witnessed firsthand the misuse of religion as a shield for discrimination and oppression.

As a transgender man living in the United States, I am reminded daily of the damage caused by the blurred lines of church and state. As a Presbyterian, I believe true religious liberty ensures freedom of religious practice and freedom from government sanctioned religion. I said yes to joining the Faith Advisory Council at AU because I believe, as faith leaders, we must directly confront the ongoing threats to the separation of religion and government. I look forward to partnering with this fantastic multi-faith   cohort and AU to do so as we en­courage others to do the same.

Sabrina ­Dent: I am a proud native of Pet­ersburg, Va., where I grew up in the Pen­t­e­costal tradition; in 2011, I was licensed as a Baptist minister. Yet practicing human dignity is my spirituality. As a past president of the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond and BJC Fellow, I embrace the remarkable value of working with people from diverse religious perspectives and worldviews. Collaborating with other Faith Advisory Council members provides an opportunity for me to understand how their communities are impacted by church-state issues and how we can support one another in our advo­cacy efforts. 

AU’s position on key issues like prioritizing public schools and advancing the Do No Harm Act are critical to addressing racial, religious, and LGBTQ discrimination. I strongly believe that religion should never be used as a weapon that causes moral injuries by infringing on a per­son’s human rights — that is, their right to live, thrive, and love. I am glad that AU bold­ly speaks out on these issues.

Lori Walke: I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, currently serving as senior minister for May­flower Congregational United Church of Christ in    Oklahoma City. In a state that consis­tently reports strong religiosity but poor social outcomes, I work at the intersection of “unapologetically Chris­tian” and “unapologetically liberal.” Passionate about social justice and the public good, I earned my juris doctorate from Oklahoma City University School of Law in 2009 and passed the Oklahoma bar exam the same year.

Like many in the millennial generation, I was brought up as a conservative Christian and grew dissatisfied with traditional answers and expectations. After sifting through the good, the bad and the ugly, I still felt an undeniable pull toward the church and parish ministry and earned a Master of Divinity from Phillips Theological Seminary in 2011 and was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 2012. I earned my Doctor of Ministry from Emory University in 2020.

 Working with Americans United is a chance to join a highly effective effort to ensure that religious conviction does not lead to religious coercion, as well as to offer a consistent public witness with other faith leaders who are committed to fairness, equity and inclusion. I am grateful to help inaugurate the FAC.

Maggie Siddi­qi: In my role at the think tank Cen­ter for American Progress, I work to advance a progressive vision of religious liberty and engage a network of leaders from America’s diverse religious communities across areas of public policy. I am a Muslim chaplain and have spent most of my career serving in nonprofits focused on American Muslim communities and interfaith relations.

Americans United is doing urgent and critical work to protect our nation’s democratic norms of religious liberty and the separation of religion and government. Religious liberty is under attack, and my Muslim community is the canary in the coal mine – one need look no further than former President Trump’s Muslim Ban for a clear example. There is a well-funded, conservative agenda to reinterpret religious liberty, not to protect vulnerable communities like my own, but to provide loopholes from emergency public health orders, nondiscrimination laws, and more. Americans United is a leader in protecting our First Amendment and ensuring that all may live free from harm, and I am grateful to be able to join in that work.