Editor’s Note: This post by Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine. To get Church & State delivered to your door every month, become a member of Americans United.
I recently taught a class at Georgetown University on the intersection of religious freedom and LGBTQ equality. It was the first in-person talk I’ve given since COVID struck, and I had a great time. I learned that South Korea was the farthest destination any of the students came from; that nearly all of them had had COVID (and one guy had it twice); and that the vast majority enthusiastically support church-state separation. But support wasn’t enough, I explained. They had to elevate it as a priority, lest religious freedom and a host of other rights they cared about suffer grave harm.
I left the classroom with a renewed sense of hope but also a hunger for AU to reach even more young people. They get it. They are changemakers. They can keep religion and government separate in America if they put their minds to it.
Whenever I think about the strong emphasis AU is now putting on reaching and working with a new generation of leaders, I remember a visit I had with a supporter in my earliest days that made me certain we needed to make young people a central focus of our work. During the visit, I explained the tirade of attacks on church-state separation. (It was the Trump years.) I left feeling disheartened about the situation and worried that our supporter might wonder whether investing in AU was worthwhile.
Since then, I have learned that our supporters wouldn’t be so easily scared away; they understand that AU is the critically important watchdog that protects religious freedom from constant attacks. But as a matter of strategy (in addition to the pure delight of working with younger people), AU is determined to enlist Generation Z in our cause.
We have several initiatives under way:
The Legal Academy will bring together around 65 law students working as summer legal interns at AU and 11 other leading nonprofit litigation groups. The Academy will focus on using high-impact litigation to protect the rights of marginalized people, including but not limited to religious minorities and the nonreligious, Black and Brown people, LGTBQ folks and women. It represents our collective commitment to cultivating a new generation of leaders who can shape the law into the future. Our Academy will teach hard litigating skills, philosophy and strategy, and through its continuing education and alumni networks, it will also forge a multi-generation community to bolster these budding leaders.
AU’s Youth Organizing Fellowship is now in its third year! This year-long leadership development program teaches about church-state separation and strengthens the organizing skills of 10 young people (ages 18-25) from diverse religious, racial and geographic backgrounds. It also keeps AU up to speed on how this new generation is thinking about and interacting with our issue and how best to reach them. The fellows organize events in their local communities and also write blog posts and Church & State articles. We are currently taking applications for our next class, so please spread the word. (Learn more at au.org/youthfellows/)
Our High School Essay Contest is going strong. Every year, we give a prompt to high school students so they can write an essay about their connection to separation of religion and government. We receive hundreds of submissions from students across the country. What strikes me as I read these essays is the multiplicity of experiences that bring students to our cause – from experiencing coaches who pressure them to pray (like in our Kennedy v. Bremerton case) to worrying about state laws that license discrimination against LGBTQ people.
AU’s Internship and Legal Fellows programs are long-running. Our decades-long internship program started with just legal interns but has grown to include interns working in outreach, communications and development. Some of our legal fellows, who have short-term, full-time jobs with AU, even come work for us permanently. Maggie Garrett, AU’s long-serving vice president for public policy, was AU’s first legal fellow! Others have gone on to become lawyers, law professors and leading civil rights advocates.
So many church-state issues affect this new generation, from religion in public schools to reproductive freedom to LGBTQ equality (because polls show a growing number of young people either identify with this community or strongly support its rights).
It makes perfect sense that young people would gravitate to this issue, and AU is proud to be leading the way.