Top Church-State Separation Stories Of 2020

  Liz Hayes

There’s no getting around it: 2020 was a rough year. A global pandemic and resulting economic crisis, a reckoning with systemic racism in America, a divisive presidential election.

Freedom of religion wasn’t spared either – President Donald Trump’s harmful policies, damaging decisions from an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, and pandemic-related attempts to grant special privileges to religious institutions all took their toll.

As we look to 2021 with hope that we can restore and protect the separation of religion and government, here’s a reflection on the biggest church-state stories of 2020:

Presidential Election’s Implications For Church-State Separation: The contentious race for the White House occupied – and divided – much of the country throughout 2020. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were the clear winners and are preparing to take the oath of office on Jan. 20, but Trump, with the help of his Christian nationalist and other far-right allies, continues to sow conspiracy theories in an attempt to subvert democracy and ignore the will of the voters. Americans United is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we didn’t endorse or oppose either candidate. But it’s clear that Trump’s administration spent four years undermining church-state separation. We look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration to restore and protect religious freedom for all. In fact, we’ve prepared an agenda of our top priorities for them.

COVID-19 Pandemic And Religious Freedom: Virtually no aspect of American life was unaffected by COVID-19 – including church-state separation. Since the pandemic’s early days, Americans United has monitored public health orders that temporarily restricted large, in-person gatherings to slow the spread of the virus. We urged public health officials and courts nationwide not to grant houses of worship dangerous religious exemptions to these orders, explaining that the Constitution permits limits on both secular and religious gatherings to protect public health. We filed more than 40 friend-of-the-court briefs, and the vast majority of courts across the country agreed with us that the orders were constitutional – until the U.S. Supreme Court reversed course the night before Thanksgiving and blocked New York from enforcing its limits on two religious groups. How that state-specific decision will impact other states’ public health orders remains to be seen.

AU’s First-Ever National Advocacy Summit: A national pandemic couldn’t stop dedicated AU supporters and church-state separation advocates from coming together to learn, connect and organize during our first-ever National Advocacy Summit. Originally planned as an in-person event in Washington, D.C., in March, the event had to be postponed and reformatted as a virtual summit in September, but that only allowed even more people – more than 800! – to participate in the workshops and discussions (which still can be viewed for free on AU’s website). That momentum carried into our National Day of Action, during which we organized more than 100 visits with members of Congress and their staff to lobby for the Do No Harm Act. The Summit is just one of many AU initiatives to prepare both our most loyal, long-standing members and new generations of church-state separationists to be passionate advocates for true religious freedom.

Link Between White Christian Nationalism And Racism Exposed: Trump didn’t create white Christian nationalism or racism, but his administration certainly emboldened these dangerous forces and exposed how they weave together to undermine our American ideals of freedom and equality for all. As people rallied peacefully in Washington, D.C., over the summer to proclaim “Black Lives Matter!” and demand racial justice, Trump had them tear-gassed and forced from a public park so he could orchestrate a quick photo-op by holding an upside-down-Bible in front of a church. And earlier this month his supporters stormed the city to protest his election loss and vandalized two historic Black churches. As AU CEO Rachel Laser said in response to the racist attacks, “We must unite against all actions that seek to privilege white Christians above all others. We will never stop fighting for an America that fulfills its promise of freedom and equality for all of us, no matter what our religious beliefs, what we look like, who we love, or who we are.”

Taxpayers Forced To Fund Religion: The Trump administration and the U.S. Supreme Court both chipped away at longstanding religious-freedom protections that ensured taxpayers could not be forced to fund religious education or activities. When Congress passed the first COVID-19 relief package, it included the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was meant to help small businesses meet payroll expenses. The Trump administration allowed houses of worship to be eligible for these forgivable loans – meaning that government grants were used to pay clergy salaries. Not only did houses of worship receive PPP funding, but so did private religious schools. An analysis by Americans United determined that as much as $6.47 billion went to religious schools; private religious schools often  received much more per student than nearby public schools that educate exponentially more children. Meanwhile, in late June, the U.S. Supreme Court undermined the religious-freedom protections in three-quarters of state constitutions when it ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that taxpayer-funded private school voucher programs must fund religious schools if they fund secular private schools. That means it’s now more important than ever to reject private school vouchers and demand that public money funds public schools.

Supreme Court Repeatedly Undermines Church-State Separation: Days after the Espinoza decision, the court in Trump v. Pennsylvania ruled that the Trump administration had sweeping statutory authority to enact exemptions that permit employers and universities to use religion to deny workers and students access to birth control as was promised in the Affordable Care Act. (We’re urging Biden to restore birth control access.) The same day, in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the court encouraged a broad reading of the “ministerial exception” that will invite religious schools to treat more of their lay teachers as ministers and deny them nondiscrimination protections. The decision likely sets up future litigation around religion-based employment discrimination – as does the court’s May decision in a trio of cases that affirmed LGBTQ people are protected from discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. While a landmark victory for LGBTQ equality, the ruling left unresolved whether employers who want to discriminate against LGBTQ workers can cite their religious beliefs as justification.

Supreme Court Balance Shifts With RBG’s Death: The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September was devastating – we lost a staunch supporter for church-state separation who, during her 27 years on the court, protected religious freedom as the right to believe, or not, as long as you don’t harm others. And to add insult to injury, Trump and Senate Republicans rushed through the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who has a hostile record toward church-state separation. Barrett has shown she does not believe in the “do no harm” principle – including in her joining the court’s new ultra-conservative majority in granting religious exemptions to New York’s COVID public health order.

Religious Discrimination In Foster Care Challenged: In August, Americans United got a great ruling in the federal lawsuit we filed on behalf of Aimee Maddonna, a Catholic mother of three from South Carolina who was turned away from helping children in foster care by a taxpayer-funded agency solely because she is Catholic – the “wrong” religion for the evangelical Protestant Miracle Hill Ministries. Aimee and AU filed a lawsuit challenging the federal and state governments for allowing this government-funded religious discrimination to occur, and a federal judge in August allowed our case to proceed. However, there are clouds on the horizon: The Supreme Court in November heard a case involving a similar issue. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the court will decide whether a faith-based, taxpayer-funded agency that has a government contract to provide foster care services on behalf of Philadelphia has a constitutional right to misuse religious freedom and discriminate against qualified families because they are LGBTQ or don’t follow an agency’s religious tenets.

Trump Issues Harmful Policies On His Way Out The Door: In December, the lame-duck Trump administration continued its practice of issuing policies that invite discrimination in the name of religion. First, the Department of Labor issued a final rule that allows federal contractors – who employ about one-fifth of the American workforce – to use religious litmus tests to hire and fire people. Days later, the administration announced regulations for nine federal agencies that roll back civil-rights and religious-freedom protections for people who use federally funded social services. These policies mean the government is preferencing the interests of service providers and contractors who receive billions in taxpayer dollars over the beneficiaries they serve and the people they employ. These acts are the latest (and hopefully the last) in a long line of harmful policies the administration created at the behest of Trump’s Christian nationalist allies, and are among the policies we’re urging Biden to reverse once he’s in office.

AU’s Legal Work To Protect People’s Rights Continues Unabated: Even as the pandemic added to our workload by creating new church-state challenges, AU’s efforts to protect religious freedom continued in courts and communities across the country. We scored several victories for people whose rights were infringed, such as nontheists in Florida whose case we successfully settled with Brevard County. The county’s board of commissioners agreed not to resume its past practice of discriminating against people who don’t belong to mainstream, monotheistic religions when selecting invocation speakers to open board meetings. Our out-of-court legal work also successfully addressed religious-freedom violations, such as the public apology we elicited from an Arizona public school district that subjected teachers and staff to 90 minutes of proselytism from eight Christian pastors during a school-sponsored event. And we brought new legal challenges, such as the appeal we filed on behalf of Mark Janny of Colorado, an atheist who was thrown in jail when he refused to take part in worship services, Bible studies and religious counseling mandated by his parole officer.


If nothing else, 2020 showed us that we can persevere as long as we don’t lose hope. And we’re very hopeful about what we can accomplish in 2021. If you’d like to support our ambitious agenda to restore and protect church-state separation, consider making a year-end gift now – thanks to generous donors, all gifts will be matched, up to $75,000, through Dec. 31, 2020.

P.S.: The “Wall of Separation” blog will be taking a break for the rest of 2020 so our staff can enjoy time with their families. Check back with us on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Happy New Year!

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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