Racial Equality

The Challenges We Face Are New. Our Responses Should Be, Too

  Rachel Laser

Editor’s note: This post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.

For people like me, rituals that slow you down and open up space for thought are good.

Every Friday, I go for a sacred early morning long run with my dear friend Andrea where we exchange our innermost thoughts. As a Jew, I have evolved into appreciating the existence of certain rituals, such as pausing at the end of a busy week to light the Shabbat candles or engaging in deep and honest per­s­onal reflec­tion each year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This monthly column gives me the space as president of Americans United to step back from my daily work to reflect on AU’s work and focus on being in relationship with you — an especially important con­nection since the coronavirus has prevented us from any chance of being together in person for so long.

At the time of this writing, I, like I hope many of you, am now not only vaccinated but in recovery mode from all that we have been through over these past few years. But every time I settle into a long and satisfying exhale, I am reminded of how much work we still have to do. Take, as one example of too many, the Supreme Court.

On April 9, the Court issued an opinion in Tandon v. Newsom, a case challenging a California policy crafted by public health officials that put the exact same limitations on religious and secular in-home gatherings.

For the Court’s ultra-conservative majority, that complete parity in treatment was still somehow mis­treating religion. Remarkably, the Court ruled that because commercial businesses such as hardware stores and groceries were allowed to open, home-based religious meetings must also be permitted. The result: The Court granted a religious exemption for in-home religious gatherings.

There is no clearer illustration of religious freedom being misused to license harm to others than this case. The long-term ramifications are extremely concerning. If the Court is willing to, in the words of Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent, “ignore … experts’ scientific findings” even amidst a global pandemic and “equally treat apples and watermelons” to bestow privilege on religion, where will the Court draw the line?

I could easily spend the rest of this column laying out the depth of the threats we now face with this Supreme Court (and the lower courts, now one quarter Trump appointees), but as important as it is to understand that danger, it’s equally critical to reserve energy to be strategic and forward moving in the face of it. That’s exactly what Americans United’s five-year strategic roadmap has enabled us to do. We are making steady progress as we work to grow our movement, increase our visibility and expand our legal and public policy capacity.

Just one example is our recent poll that I plan to share in more detail soon. We cannot make transformational progress until we understand what obstacles stand in the way of more people joining our cause. Our research taught us that while a super-majority of Americans support church-state separation, very few understand how it affects their lives or that it’s under threat. As we educate more people about our issue, we must ensure that we are speaking about our values in modern and resonant terms. But the good news is, for many of our issues, the support is already there. For example, we were thrilled to learn from our poll that 8 in 10 Ameri­cans agree that “the law should not allow people to use their religious beliefs to harm others.”

I am also excited to preview that AU will be refreshing our logo and visual identity and (drumroll please!) adding a tagline. You will also be pleased to know that we are redesigning our website to maximize its appeal and usefulness. We are doing all of this work carefully, driven by best practices, data we are collecting and extensive conversations with both our members and new target audiences.

We’ve also begun to think about plans to celebrate our 75th anniversary next year. Highlights are sure to include our Second National Advocacy Summit (save the date: March 27-29, 2022), the rollout of our rebranding (discussed above), a nationwide visibility campaign, projects to grow AU’s budget to continue our strategic plan work and special opportunities throughout the year to honor our past work and look forward together.

Thanks for spending some of your valuable time today joining me as I share my thoughts. Until next month … stay healthy, stay hopeful and stay strong.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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