October 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Americans United will host a National Advocacy Summit on March 22-24, 2020, in the heart of Washington, D.C. The summit is designed to bring together activists of all stripes from around the country for an update on current church-state issues, a strategy session on how to defend our rights and visits with members of Congress on Capitol Hill.

Church & State asked Sarah Gillooly, AU’s vice president for state outreach and engagement, to explain the summit and let AU’s supporters know what they can expect during the event.

Registration is open online at: www.au.org/conference. The site will be updated as speakers and panels are added, so check back frequently.

Q. What is the National Advocacy Summit, and why is Americans United sponsoring it?

Gillooly: The Americans United 2020 National Advocacy Summit will bring AU supporters from across the country together in Washington, D.C., to learn, connect and advocate in the halls of Congress and build the movement for separation of religion and government – the only way to ensure freedom of religion, including the right to believe or not believe, for all.

For years, AU has gathered our volunteer leaders in D.C. each year for an annual meeting. However, as the political moment becomes more and more urgent, we knew it was time to make sure our doors were open to the entire AU family – volunteer leaders, but also members, supporters, students, faith leaders and friends who have just recently learned about our cause. With the constant barrage of attacks on religious freedom leading to discrimination against both nonbelievers and people of minority faiths, we need spaces where we can come together for fellowship and fun. The National Advocacy Summit will be just that. It will be an opportunity not only to learn together, but also get inspired and connect with friends old and new.

Q. These are very challenging times for separation of church and state. How can citizen activists make a difference?

Gillooly: When we think about the enormity of the attacks on the separation of church and state, we often have one of two responses – either “the courts will fix that” or “the problem is so huge I feel helpless.” The truth is, the courts are increasingly hostile to the separation of religion and government. And apathy isn’t an option.

The most important thing we can do is ask ourselves what is in our immediate sphere of influence. We sometimes think we need huge rallies or big electoral change to make a difference, but that simply isn’t true. In the increasingly impersonal world of politics, the power of a handwritten note or two, or three constituents asking a legislator out to coffee to thank them for their support of the First Amendment (or to ask for their future support!) is huge.

We may not see the immediate impact of helping a young person attend an event like the National Advocacy Summit, but igniting the passion of a young person pays off years into the future. The arc of history bends toward justice – but it’s still a long arc, and we need to play the long game and not get lost in the bigness of the problem. I think of the quote which comes from an interpretation of the Jewish ethical text Pirkei Avot: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Q. What can attendees of the summit expect?

Gillooly: The main conference will take place on Monday, featuring a full line up of speakers and workshops. The workshops will feature church-state experts from AU and many of our partner organizations. In the workshops, we’ll cover topics as diverse as a deep dive into recent case law and how to co-host amazing events with student groups. There will be a little something for everybody. On Tuesday, we’ll take our energy to Capitol Hill and meet with our lawmakers in Congress. Now is the time to make our voices heard and ask Congress to pass the Do No Harm Act!

There will also be plenty of time to network with like-minded people from around the country – including a cocktail party honoring AU volunteer leaders on Sunday evening and informal get-togethers after the main conference sessions on Monday eve­ning. The conference hotel is centrally located in beautiful downtown Washington, D.C., with easy access to the White House and many of the Smithsonian museums, so it’s a great home base to explore the best our nation’s capital has to offer.

David Morris, Sarah Gillooly and Bill Mefford planning NAS

PHOTO: AU State Outreach and Engagement staffers David Morris, Sarah Gillooly and Bill Mefford discuss details of the National Advocacy Summit.

Q. Can you tell us anything about the speakers?

Gillooly: I’m excited to say that Jeff Sharlet, whose books on the secretive Christian nationalist group the Family have been turned into a popular Netflix series, has agreed to join us as the keynote speaker! This will be a fabulous opportunity for attendees to hear from and interact with someone who has a deep knowledge about Christian nationalism in America – the regressive political agenda driving Project Blitz.

In addition to the workshops and breakout sessions, we’ll have a series of plenary speakers to get the whole crowd fired up. We’re delighted that former AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn will be joining us to deliver our 2020 Person of the Year award!

In addition, we are honored to feature Aimee Maddonna speaking to us from the main stage. AU supporters will remember that Aimee is the plaintiff in our federal lawsuit in South Carolina challenging a decision by state and federal officials to allow a taxpayer-funded foster care agency to discriminate on the basis of religion. (Editor’s Note: Read more about Aimee’s case in the April 2019 issue of Church & State.)

Readers can stay tuned at www. ­au.org/conference or on AU’s Facebook page for updates about the Summit.

Q. What sort of follow-up will happen after the summit? 

Gillooly: There is no doubt that 2020 will be a busy and critical year for democracy as our country elects the next president. While AU does not get involved in electoral politics and cannot support or oppose any candidate for elected office, there is so much we can do to educate our friends and neighbors about the issues our country is facing when it comes to separation of religion and government and the importance of the First Amendment.

That’s why we are so excited to launch a new visibility campaign at the National Advocacy Summit! The visibility campaign will raise the profile of AU and our issues across the country and provide members and supporters new ways to take action. Join us in D.C. in March 2020 to be the first to hear about AU’s new campaign.

Q. Sounds great! What should people do if they want to attend?

Gillooly: Registration for the 2020 AU National Advocacy Summit is now open! You can register or learn more by visiting www.au­.org/con­ference

Also, AU is committed to ensuring young adults from underrepresented groups are able to attend the National Advocacy Summit. To help make that happen, AU is offering a Young Adult Travel Grant, which can help students and young people cover the cost of their airfare and hotel. You can learn more about the Young Adult Travel Grant and apply by visiting www. ­au.org/conference and looking for “Scholarships” under the “About” section. We hope AU members will share information about the travel grant with all the young people in their networks!