Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.
I guess with this September issue of Church & State in your hands, you and I can no longer pretend it’s still summer. I hope yours was as restful and restorative as possible, involved good family and friends time and even afforded you space to think and grow.
As I think back on the many great moments of Americans United’s summer, an organizational and personal standout for me was the June 25 House Education and Labor Committee hearing on the Do No Harm Act. I was honored to deliver my first congressional testimony there.
Having lived through and even enjoyed it, here are my top four reflections on the experience:
There is mounting energy around church-state separation. It’s not easy to have your issue featured in a full committee hearing, but the Trump administration’s steady stream of rules that authorize discrimination in the name of “religious freedom” has risen to the level that members of Congress are taking notice. More than that, they are choosing to highlight a solution, one that AU was integral in helping to bring about: the Do No Harm Act. This crucial legislation would restore the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to its original intent of protecting religious minorities and make clear this law can’t be misused to harm people. It no doubt helped that the committee’s chair, U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, is a co-sponsor of the bill and one of the lead congressional champions of church-state separation.
I have enjoyed getting to know Scott and remember well at our first meeting his telling me that his passion for our issue stems in part from our country’s unproud history of using religious freedom to justify racism. Scott and his fellow supportive committee members had plenty of material to highlight in the hearing, including our very own lawsuit involving Aimee Maddonna, who was turned away from a tax-funded foster care agency in South Carolina because she’s Catholic and not evangelical Protestant. The committee hearing was so well attended that it lasted four hours to accommodate committee members’ questions.
Our supporters strongly associate attacks on reproductive freedom with the erosion of church-state separation. The majority of questions I was asked centered on the many attacks today on women’s reproductive freedom. This reinforced what we already know: to strengthen our movement, we must emphasize the connection between reproductive freedom and religious freedom. This is particularly important in reaching younger people. In fact, we have already seen new growth in our social media followers from taking this approach.
Our opponents continue to turn our core principles on their head. Matt Sharp, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a well-funded opponent of church-state separation, testified on the other side at the hearing. Shortly after, he published an op-ed summarizing his position titled, “Disagreement is not discrimination: ‘Do No Harm Act’ is a dishonest act to eject religion.” To the contrary, the Do No Harm Act is an honest act to protect religion – religious freedom for all people, and not just a select few. It ensures that people like Aimee will not suffer discrimination because she’s the “wrong” religion. It makes clear the government cannot force you to pay the cost of someone else’s religion because that gives preference to their religion. Also, when Hobby Lobby “disagrees” with the Affordable Care Act’s guarantee of birth control without cost-sharing and denies its employees access to contraception, that constitutes discrimination.
Our staff rocks! But you and I both knew that already. In this instance, I’m talking about Maggie Garrett, our vice president for public policy, and Dena Sher, our assistant director for public policy. They are leading national subject matter experts and invaluable sources to our Capitol Hill friends. And their dedication and generosity of spirit pays off in spades. I am indebted to both of them for preparing me so extensively for the hearing and for all they do – often behind the scenes – to protect all Americans’ freedom of conscience.
The funniest moment in the hearing was when I referenced my kids being there to watch me, turned around and found that they had left! May we all continue to find the lighter moments amidst the challenging fight to preserve true religious freedom.