Americans United for Separation of Church and State today unveiled an aggressive, multi-pronged initiative to fight the growing idea that “religious freedom” gives people a right to thwart marriage equality for LGBT Americans, deny women access to reproductive care and use taxpayer dollars to discriminate.
AU’s new “Protect Thy Neighbor” project pushes back against efforts to transform religious freedom into a cudgel to harm others – an effort that’s quickly gaining steam in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent marriage-equality ruling.
“Some people want to convert the crucial principle of religious freedom into a license to discriminate against others and deny Americans essential services,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “That’s a corruption of a noble concept, and we don’t intend to stand for it.”
Lynn said Protect Thy Neighbor will focus on three key areas of activism:
* Government relations: Even before the Supreme Court’s ruling, legislatures throughout the country began debating dozens of bills that would pervert the meaning of religious liberty by allowing corporations, businesses and even government offices to cite religion as a justification to discriminate. The backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision will spark new proposals in legislatures across the country – in fact, we’re already seeing some. AU’s Legislative Department will mount a targeted lobbying campaign to defeat these measures and will work with AU chapters and allies from coast to coast to help them fight back.
* Litigation and legal work: AU’s Legal Department will bring courtroom challenges against irresponsible legislation or governmental policies that permit commercial establishments or government employees to discriminate in the name of religion. AU’s legal team will defend anti-discrimination provisions against attack by those who claim a religious right to discriminate and also ensure that women, not their bosses, have the right to maintain control over their reproductive lives.
* Public education: Through social media campaigns, the creation of effective educational materials, strategic dissemination of information and other outreach efforts, Americans United will educate communities about the threat posed by this new definition of “religious liberty.” AU will arm individuals and interest groups with the tools they need to fight back.
Americans United has already done significant work in this area. AU is the only organization currently representing women in court to protect the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. (The case challenges University of Notre Dame policies that AU asserts threaten the ability of students and staff to access birth control.) In addition, AU and allied groups filed successful litigation in Alabama to compel recalcitrant local officials there to grant wedding licenses to same-sex couples.
Americans United has also been a vocal critic of dangerous “religious freedom” bills in Indiana, Arkansas and other states. These measures, AU pointed out, had little to do with real religious liberty; rather, they were designed to foster religion-based discrimination and give for-profit businesses the right to refuse to serve LGBT people.
AU has simultaneously launched a new website – www.protectthyneighbor.org – to alert people of the need for action. It will also serve as a clearinghouse for news about the issue and provide information to people who believe their rights have been violated. The site will include a blog and regular updates from around the country.
Americans United announced the project this morning during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Lynn spoke at the event, along with Maggie Garrett, AU’s legislative director, and Gregory M. Lipper, AU’s senior litigation counsel.
Lynn pointed out that the name of the project, Protect Thy Neighbor, is designed to confront and challenge those who would use religion as a tool to harm others and diminish their rights.
“The idea of treating your neighbor with love and respect runs through every major religion and secular philosophy,” Lynn said. “But too often, the message of the Religious Right and its theological and political allies is the opposite: They look for ways to take away the rights of their fellow citizens.”
Added Lynn, “Protect Thy Neighbor is a direct challenge to the narrow and exclusionary view of those who would assail the rights of others under the guise of ‘religious freedom.’ I invite all Americans of goodwill, religious and non-religious, to join us in protecting your neighbors from the harm caused by that misguided vision.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.