Editor’s Note: This post by Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine. To get Church & State delivered to your door every month, become a member of Americans United.
As a lawyer and resident of Washington, D.C., since the mid ’90s, I have a longstanding relationship with the U.S. Supreme Court. I have had the honor of being sworn into the Supreme Court Bar. I have lined up in the dark hours of the morning many times so that I could attend oral arguments. I have spoken at and participated in many rallies outside the Court.
I remember the joy I felt when I went to the Court with my daughter in 2016 to celebrate when Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt came down, ruling that Texas could not target abortion providers and facilities with burdensome and unnecessary regulations. And I remember being back at the Court in 2018 after the Senate confirmed Justice Brett Kavanaugh. I joined women who were angry and concerned to the point of tears that their voices were not being heard and taken seriously.
As AU’s president and CEO, I have made it a priority to speak at as many Supreme Court rallies as possible in order to bring our issue into the spotlight and awaken attendees to the church-state separation angle of the case at hand. To name a few highlights, I delivered remarks when the Muslim Ban case came down, when Masterpiece Cakeshop was decided, during oral arguments in the Bladensburg Cross case, during the Bostock v. Clayton County oral arguments about including LGBTQ people in federal workplace protections and on the day of the decision in the Fulton v. Philadelphia case about foster care discrimination. I also spoke during the recent Mississippi abortion ban oral arguments. In all of these cases, AU’s Legal Department had also brought our perspective directly to the nine justices in the form of friend-of-the-court briefs submitted on behalf of faith and secular groups combined.
Through good and bad times, I have revered this institution and felt an undeniable combination of awe and gratitude in the face of its grandiose and proud structure. Yes, I’m aware that the Court gets it egregiously wrong sometimes (such as in Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. United States), but I’ve also witnessed the way the Court has eventually risen to meet the promises of our American values (such as in Brown v. Board of Education and in Lawrence v. Texas). And I have never lost sight of the fact that the Court operates as a core pillar of our democracy – one of the three legs of the stool – and plays a key role in protecting individual rights and freedoms.
That’s why AU went all out when we argued the Kennedy v. Bremerton case April 25. In the hours before Legal Director Richard B. Katskee (accompanied by Litigation Counsel Bradley Girard) brilliantly argued the case, we organized an unforgettable gathering of staff, AU Youth Fellows and several AU Board of Trustees members. U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, AU Trustee and Christian Methodist Episcopal General Counsel Ouida Brown and five Bremerton-area clergy joined me in speaking to a pumped-up crowd outside the Court.
It was a momentous in-person reunion for AU staff, and for some, it was their first time meeting colleagues in person. Every AU employee felt the pride of having worked hard, collaboratively and successfully, at either crafting strategic legal arguments, raising AU’s profile or building our movement of supporters around this case. Rep. Raskin, known for his fierce defense of our democracy, explained the importance of church-state separation and the legal cases protecting students’ religious freedom. And the Bremerton clergy, together with Ouida Brown, provided a piercing moral call for true religious freedom. But also lifting our spirits up high that day was the knowledge that we have the support of the majority of Americans.
A week later, we learned about the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overruling Roe v. Wade. For me, there was only one place I wanted to be. I headed back to the Court, joined by a mostly young, enraged crowd. I confess being too shell-shocked to take the microphone to share AU’s perspective that night, but to my utter delight, I didn’t need to. The crowd spontaneously erupted into a boisterous chant of, “Not the Church/Not the State/We will decide our fate.”
We have a lot of work to do, friends, but we must stay the course. We are on the right side of history, and the majority of Americans are with us. AU is in it for the long haul.