October 2020 Church & State Magazine | Perspective

Even as the pandemic persists, I’m in a great mood as I write this. And it’s because Americans United’s first-ever National Advocacy Summit was a huge success.

Let me remind you why we invested in the Summit. When I joined AU, the Board of Trustees, AU staff and I created a five-year strategic roadmap. The Cliff Notes version is that we need to make more noise in support of keeping religion and government separate. We decided that a National Advocacy Summit could help us accomplish this. The good news: It did and then some.

We had over 800 people tune in representing 39 states plus the District of Columbia! Representatives from 14 ally groups – from the ACLU to the NAACP to the National Coalition for Transgender Equality to Muslim Advocates – all took the time and made the effort to be panelists. This not only brought vast learning to the summit, it also showcased AU’s strong relationships and how foundational our issue is to so many others.

We conducted over 100 virtual lobby visits to con­gressional offices and members of Congress on AU’s priority legislation, the Do No Harm Act (DNHA). We now have 32 Senate and 210 House of Representatives DNHA co-sponsors. Reminder: You only need 218 votes in the House to pass a bill!

While the Summit by the numbers alone is impressive and demonstrates the noise we succeeded in making, there were also many highlights that the numbers don’t capture. I will share just a few favorites.

The Summit got off to a great start when an AU board member suggested that participants joining the con­ference use the chat box to say where they were. The chat box buzzed with locations from across the country and continued to light up throughout the entire conference with enthusiastic questions and comments.

U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott and Joe Kennedy, the lead sponsors of the DNHA, made live appearances to greet our supporters and talk about the importance of AU and church-state separation. I especially loved when Rep.  Scott, in explaining the importance of the DNHA, offered his version of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”: “Discrimination anywhere is an invitation to discriminate everywhere.” We should all use that line!

Award-winning literary journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and executive producer of the Netflix series based on the book, joined us as our keynote speaker. His remarks were gripping and appropriately disturbing. It was an honor to announce publicly that Jeff has just officially become a member of Americans United’s Board of Trustees!

Our plaintiff Aimee Maddonna, who was turned away from a taxpayer-funded foster care agency in South Carolina because she is Catholic and not evangelical Christian, was another amazing part of the keynote panel. Aimee’s heart is so in this lawsuit. When she shared her story with members of Congress as part of our Summit Day of Action, it was incredible to witness one member of Congress offer to host a public call for Aimee and others like her who were similarly turned away and another agree on the spot to co-sponsor the DNHA “without hesitation or reservation.”

I was excited to share at the Summit that AU has just launched our brand-new Youth Organizing Fellowship. Among the 10 fellows are last year’s AU Student Essay Contest winner; a student leader of Irish 4 Reproductive Health, which AU represents in a lawsuit designed to protect access to birth control; and several other emerging young leaders from across the country.

Last but far from least, I was delighted that the Summit showed off AU’s staff. It’s no small feat to pull off a virtual event of this caliber – let alone for our first-ever conference like this. Our staff came together during the most challenging of times, and on top of their busier-than-ever workloads, to share their expertise and run a large-scale and high-quality online conference. Over 800 people had proof of what I see every day – that AU has an amazingly talented, dedicated and team-oriented staff.

The Summit will be back in 2022 to mark AU’s 75th anni­versary. I hope to see you there in person!

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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