The Separation of Church and State

The answer for dark days is to find a way through them

  Rachel Laser

Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine. 

During a recent trip to California, I was fortunate to hear Kate Kendell, the chief of staff at The California Endowment, speak to a group of law students and recent graduates. Kate previously led the National Center for Lesbian Rights for 22 years and served as the interim chief legal officer at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Kate’s talk was about how she has approached legal and personal challenges throughout her career and how she stays motivated given the current legal landscape. She empathized: “I know it can feel overwhelming, but something worse happened before, and we found our way out of it.” Kate described the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when government officials not only didn’t act to address the health crisis, but some were even celebrating the disproportionate effect the illness had on gay men.

I wondered whether a group of young adults would agree that things were worse back then. Just a few weeks ago, Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager in Oklahoma who used they/them pronouns, was beaten in a public school bathroom and then ended their own life – following the governor and superintendent of public instruction spewing hateful rhetoric and implementing a series of anti-LGBTQ+ policies.

What Gen. Z has seen

During their adult lives, the young people Kate spoke to have seen religious extremist lawmakers ban LGBTQ-inclusive books and deny transgender people access to sports, and even health care. They’ve seen the U.S. Supreme Court rule there’s a constitutional right for some businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, overturn Roe v. Wade, effectively eliminate the use of affirmative action in college admissions, deal devastating blows to voting rights and severely undermine church-state separation. Things understandably feel bleak to Generation Z. Would any time seem worse to them?

I’m not of their generation, so to better understand what they might be thinking, I relied on an exercise I used when I was an educator on racial justice issues. I would ask workshop participants to think about racism in this country today as compared to the 1950s. They were to stand in one place in the room if they thought racism was worse today, another if they thought it was about the same today and a third spot if they thought racism was worse in the ’50s. Inevitably, the room would split evenly into thirds. Each group would then get a chance to explain themselves and induce people to join them.

What struck me was that no matter where they were standing, everyone agreed that racism was a vicious problem in the past but also saw how we had triumphed over parts of it. Everyone also agreed that new manifestations of racism were present today but took hope from what the leaders of the past were able to accomplish.

The past as a guide

Similarly, Kate helped us remember that no matter how bad things are today, the LGBTQ+ community has overcome horrific moments in the past and gone on to make great progress for decades. She helped us remember that we too can overcome the challenges of today, make gains and live to tell a new generation about it.

Church-state separation has seen many difficult moments across our history, but it has also enjoyed some great victories. In the 1940s, some rural public schools were being taken over by churches – until Americans United put a stop to it. In 1960, a Catholic running for president, John F. Kennedy, felt compelled to verify that he would put his country before the Vatican – and he overcame prejudice to win.

In 1962’s landmark Engel v. Vitale decision, the Supreme Court struck down coercive, state-sponsored prayer in public schools. We saw great strides in women’s rights in the 1970s and LGBTQ+ rights in the decades that followed, culminating in the high court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling.

A counterblast to the backlash

Now we’re seeing an inevitable backlash to the expansion of those rights. But this cycle is playing out predictably with a counterblast to the backlash. Americans realizing their rights are in jeopardy and voting to support abortion rights even in red states is just one example.

You get the point. Again and again, America has come back from colossal challenges to our country’s core values and made progress. That spurs a new wave of challenges, though – and that’s why groups like Americans United are so important. We will never stop being the watchdogs that protect your freedoms and equality. Together, like Kate reminded us, we will continue to find our way out of it.

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