March 2018 Church & State | Cover Story

For Rachel K. Laser, activism and commitment to social justice run through her DNA.

Laser gets that spirit in a large part from her parents, who stood up for racial justice, women’s rights, free speech and other issues in the 1960s and beyond. In fact, Laser’s mother once took a face full of tear gas while she and Laser’s father were marching in Chicago against the Vietnam War. At the time, she was pregnant with Laser and her twin brother Adam.

“I would never sign up for work I didn’t feel passionate about,” Laser said. “I bring that passion to my work. I’m told it can be contagious.”

That passion and commitment impressed Americans United’s Board of Trustees, which voted unanimously to name Laser (pronounced “Laz­zer”) the organization’s new Executive Director. The Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, president of Americans Uni­ted’s Board of Trustees, said he’s looking forward to working with Laser.

“During my conversations with her, it quickly became apparent that Rachel is the dynamic and visionary leader that Americans United needs right now,” said Jones. “She’s committed to this cause, she’s smart, she knows how to work with diverse audiences and form partnerships with like-minded groups and, most importantly, she’s a fighter. I’m especially impressed with her collaborative, team-spirit style of leadership, and I believe her guidance will take Americans United into an exciting, successful future.”

Laser, an attorney who has had a long career in nonprofit advocacy, took over the position last month. She succeeds Barry W. Lynn, who led Americans United from 1992 until his retirement last year.

Laser is the first woman to run the organization in its 71-year history and the first non-Christian. (She and her family are Jewish.) She’s well aware of the scope of the challenge she’s undertaking, and Laser is eager to get to work.

“This is a scary time, but it’s filled with opportunity,” Laser said. “Our bedrock principle of church-state separation is definitely imperiled. Yet if we work to educate Americans about its importance and put a human face on this issue to show what’s at stake, I’m confident our core values will win out.”

A native of Chicago who now lives in Washington, D.C., Laser attended Harvard University, where she graduated with honors, earning a degree in history and literature. While there, she founded the Harvard Women’s Center, which created a space for students to convene to discuss issues of importance to women.

From Harvard, Laser went to the University of Chicago Law School, earning her law degree in 1995. (She studied there at the same time one of the law school’s most famous professors, Barack Obama, was a member of the faculty, but she never had the future president as an instructor.) During her time at Chicago Law, Laser was on the staff of the University of Chicago Law Review and interned for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Laser knew she wanted to go where the action is in public-interest law: Washington, D.C. After relocating, she clerked for a federal judge in Maryland, worked as general counsel of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington and then did a stint for a public policy and public affairs consulting firm that specialized in women’s health issues.

In 2002, Laser took a position with the National Women’s Law Center, an Americans United ally, where she founded and directed the group’s Pharmacy Refusal Project, an effort to fight back against the idea that pharmacists have a right under religious freedom to refuse to fill certain prescriptions (such as birth control).

From 2005-10, Laser was culture program director at Third Way, a progressive think tank, where she brought together evangelical Christians and liberals to find shared values on abortion, LGBTQ equality and other divisive issues. She forged close relationships there with some moderate evangelical leaders whom she still calls friends today. Later, she served as deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), also a close ally of Americans United. While at the RAC, she worked on a number of church-state issues, including fighting the rash of overreaching state bills that followed the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling and opposing discrimination in the name of “religious freedom.”

Most recently, Laser has worked to dismantle racism and uncover its connection to white privilege. She has led workshops for schools and nonprofits, guest lectured at universities and delivered speeches at houses of worship and community centers around the country.

Throughout her career and personal life, Laser has worked and interacted with people from diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds.

“I respect the role religion plays in people’s lives in giving them purpose, community, ritual and structure.” Laser said. “Yet I also respect the rights of those who choose not to believe. They are every bit as centered and principled as believers. A big idea behind separation of church and state is that the individual gets to make that choice – to be religious or not – without interference or judgment from the government.”

Laser has a reputation for her ability to build bridges and is hopeful she will be able to do the same over time at Americans United. “I think there is vast space on our issues to find common values among a variety of different communities – interfaith, secular, progressive and conservative ones. If we open up the space to work together, we might find that we agree more often than we thought. And elsewhere, we can respectfully disagree.”

As a member of a religious minority, Laser feels a personal connection to the need for separation of religion and government. She attended public school, as have all three of her children. “Public schools help unify the diverse communities in our society at the same time as they recognize and respect our differences. They must teach our children our shared American values – not any one faith’s beliefs. And all students, regardless of religious belief, should feel welcome in our public schools.” Laser said.

Laser understands that the separation of religion and government means taxpayer money cannot be used to fund religion. “Individuals get to decide which religion to follow – if any – and whether and how their money goes to support religion,” said Laser. “This not only protects the taxpayer, it safeguards the integrity of religious institutions.”

And Laser is ready to take on the emerging religious freedom issue of our day – the misuse of “religious freedom” to allow discrimination and harm to others: “No American should be deprived of their rights or dignity based on someone else’s religion.”

Laser said she’s excited by the opportunities presented by leading Americans United and that she’s looking forward to working with AU members, chapter leaders, clergy and activists.

“Our agenda must reflect a passion for our values and our country. And our efforts must be guided by strategic acumen in order to prevail in these challenging times,” said Laser. “I plan to bring every skill I have cultivated, every relationship I have built and every lesson I have learned to Americans United to make that happen.”

 

Laser recently sat down with Church & State for a Q&A:

Q. What excites you about leading Americans United at this moment in history?

 

Laser:  We are living in an extraordinary time in the American experiment, in which our commitment to being a place that welcomes people of all backgrounds has produced an increasingly vibrant, diverse nation.

But we are also witnessing an alarming moment in American history. Our country’s top leaders are failing to honor America’s promise to separate religion and government, which is the foundation of freedom of religion and conscience for all. I cannot think of a more important moment to join this smart, devoted and effective team in its work to inspire our country to be true to its highest values and to help hold it accountable when it’s not.

 

Q. What is your vision for Americans United?

 

Laser:  To renew America’s commitment to the separation of religion and government. To grow and broaden the coalition of Americans who consider this principle a priority and understand its connection to other issues they care about. To expose the political movement behind using religion as a license to discriminate against vulnerable classes of people. To put a human face to these issues, which can feel abstract. And, of course, to continue AU’s distinguished 71-year-long leadership in this space. 

 

Q. You are an attorney, and you’ve done a lot of work combating racism and standing up for women’s rights. What led you to come to AU?

 

Laser:  As a member of a minority religion – Judaism – and someone who believes deeply in the importance of an America that values all types of religious and non-religious identities equally, I want to devote myself to protecting and expanding support for our nation’s wise, foundational promise to separate religion and government.

Without this separation, I would not have felt comfortable sending all three of my children to public schools. Separation of religion and government is also vital to dismantling racism, protecting reproductive freedom and advancing LGBTQ equality – all issues that have been at the center of my life’s work and where religion has too often been used as a basis for discrimination. Today more than ever, we must work hard not only to defend the separation of religion and government but also to educate Americans about this core American value and re-invigorate their support for it.

 

Q. Separation of church and state is integral to religious freedom. Can you say a little about what religious freedom means to you, especially as a person of faith, and the role that separation plays in protecting faith?

 

Laser: Religion gives me a space and structure for reflecting on my life, aspiring to be my best self and celebrating and marking my own and my family and friends’ milestones. It also gives me a connection to a broader community and a shared set of values, which gives me a sense of belonging and rootedness.

For example, like many (but certainly not all) Jews, my family celebrates Shabbat on Friday nights. At a recent Shabbat that fell near the one-year anniversary of a medical challenge our family faced, my husband and I were saying the traditional prayers and became emotional reflecting on our gratitude for our family’s health, the support of our family and friends and our love for each other that got us through it.

My appreciation for my own religion makes me a fierce advocate for protecting the religious freedom of others. All Americans should have the right to believe or not believe and no American, religious or non-religious, should have religion imposed on them – especially not by the government. No one should feel as though they must adhere to a certain set of religious beliefs in order to be treated fairly by their government or welcome in their community. Separation of religion and government is fundamental to protecting freedom of conscience for everyone.

 

Q. Americans United is a multi-faith organization with members from a wide array of faith traditions and also many atheists and others who identify as spiritual but not religious. What do you look forward to in working with our diverse members and supporters?

 

Laser:  One of the very reasons I want to work at Americans United is its diverse membership and the importance of separation of religion and government to all of us. It means our Jewish members can’t be forced to join a Christian prayer at their kid’s high school graduation; our Baptist members can feel assured that the government will not interfere with the integrity of their church; and our atheist members can reject all forms of religion. I am eager to listen to and learn from all of our supporters and members about what animates their commitment to Americans United. Because AU’s mandate is at the heart of who we are as a country, I suspect there will be many shared reasons as well as varied ones. I have worked on behalf of a religious denomination, in secular progressive nonprofits and with the interfaith community. Americans United will give me the opportunity to work with the many colleagues from my past whom I now call friends.

 

Q. How can we best counter the idea that religious freedom includes a right to discriminate or deny people certain services?

 

Laser:  Two ways. First, we must appeal to our shared American values. We are a stronger nation because of our many different religious and non-religious belief systems, creeds, races and ethnicities. In order to co-exist peacefully, hospitably and productively across the public squares of our nation, we must share one public moral and ethical American code – represented by our Constitution and laws – and certainly cause each other no harm based on our personal religious beliefs and practices. While we have not always lived up to our highest ideals, our country aspires not to tolerate discrimination against others based on their differences and grants protections to people who belong to populations that have been traditionally disadvantaged. No single individual’s or group’s religious beliefs should trump these American principles.

Second, we must recognize that religious freedom for all cannot thrive if one religious viewpoint is imposed on those who subscribe to other religious or non-religious belief systems. For example, Roman Catholicism is opposed to abortion in all cases, but in Judaism, it is commonly believed that when the mother’s life is imperiled by her pregnancy, abortion is not merely permissible, it’s mandatory.

 

Q. The rights of women and LGBTQ people have been targets in our country in recent times. Can you tell us why you think church-state separation is important in protecting the rights of women and LGBTQ people?

 

Laser: Many, though not all, who favor policies that discriminate against women and people who identify as LGBTQ ground their objections in their religious beliefs. Separation of religion and government means that our country’s laws may not be governed or undermined by any one religious belief. Instead, they must reflect our shared American values of equality and fairness. This is essential to women’s and LGBTQ people’s well-being and equal status in our country. 

 

Q. You have an extensive background in nonprofit advocacy. What have you learned over the years that you can bring to Americans United?

 

Laser: I have learned that most decisions are better when a diverse set of people make them together. I have learned that advocacy is harder than it seems – that many Americans want to engage productively on issues they care about but need help knowing how to do so effectively, and that similarly, it can be challenging for nonprofit advocacy groups to figure out how to engage a broad membership in strategic action. I have learned that putting human faces to issues helps people understand what is at stake. I have learned that it is possible to find shared values even with some people who are considered to be “on the other side” if you open up space for respectful conversation.

 

Q. Who are your heroes? Is there a certain figure who has inspired you?

 

Laser:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg is so many things I aspire to be. She is a Jewish woman who challenged and overcame the sexist expectations of her times and has spent her life powerfully and effectively advocating for America to make good on its promise of equality and opportunity for all. She is a mother and also enjoyed a loving and supportive relationship with her husband. She is also the type of person who is capable of forming close human relationships even with those with whom she often disagrees, as was evidenced by her friendship with her adversary on the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia.

 

Q. Is there a song that really gets you going when you need a shot of energy? Is there a book you’ve found particularly inspiring?

 

Laser:  Typically, I need more calming down than a shot of energy. Some of my favorite songs to listen to in those moments include “Easy Silence” by the Dixie Chicks, “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits and “Purple Rain” by Prince. My favorite books of late are two that are filled with courageous introspection and truth-telling: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

 

Q. Tell us a little about your personal life and your family. What are your hobbies and interests when you’re off the clock? What does your ideal Saturday afternoon look like?

 

Laser:  My ideal Saturday starts in the morning – an early walk with my husband and our dog, a strong cappuccino and quick read of the paper, a rigorous yoga class and then lunch with my husband and my teenage son when he can join. The ideal afternoon usually entails a long dog walk with a close friend, some time at my desk, some relaxing and reading, and, hopefully, some more connecting with my son and one or both of my daughters, who are in college. I also try to call my parents every day. Note that this leaves all my chores to Sunday, a less pleasurable day by far!

My other passions are running outside, spending time with my extended family, talking with good friends even in faraway places and dancing whenever the opportunity arises.