Members of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, National Leadership Council (NLC) and Youth Advisory Council gathered in Washington, D.C., Oct. 30-31 for a 2016 Annual Meeting focused on increasing online and grassroots activism. This year’s meeting was planned collaboratively with the NLC Meetings Committee, chaired by NLC member Vernon Alger, and the AU Field Department.
During the event, attendees participated in workshops on how to advocate more effectively for separation of church and state in their local communities.
The meeting was coordinated by Americans United National Field Director Erin Taylor, who shared how AU is organizing people online and in the field through chapters and other avenues. Erin Hagen, AU’s field associate and main youth organizer, joined Rebecca Davis-Nord, assistant director of development, and Janice Rael, chair of the NLC, to discuss ways to find and engage new and existing supporters.
A number of other workshops were offered, featuring:
– Maggie Garrett, legislative director, provided an overview of federal and state legislative efforts that affect church-state separation. She was aided by Amrita Singh, state legislative counsel, and Samantha Sokol, legislative assistant.
– Dena Sher, legislative assistant director, joined forces with Bill Mefford, AU’s new faith organizer, to focus on how to build relationships with state and local officials.
– Rob Boston, director of communications, and Kate Perelman, digital campaign specialist, discussed how to reach and educate people through traditional media and social media platforms.
– Richard B. Katskee, AU’s legal director, led a panel titled “What’s Next at the Supreme Court?” He was joined by Bradley Girard, AU’s Stephen Gey legal fellow and Ronald B. Flowers, a member of AU’s Board of Trustees.
– Toni Van Pelt, coordinator of the NLC’s Speakers Bureau Committee, gave a talk on “Developing Speakers for AU Causes” and encouraged volunteers to join the new AU Speakers Bureau.
In addition, Mefford hosted a plenary panel on working with faith communities. He was joined by Eric Lane, president of AU’s San Antonio Chapter; Rick McClatchy, a member of the NLC; and Kristin Kumpf, director of organizing for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church.
On Monday afternoon, Americans United honored two special awardees. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), was named AU’s Person of the Year, while Zack Kopplin, a journalist who has exposed Religious Right efforts to promote creationism in public schools, received the David Norr Youth Activist Award.
Kopplin, who thanked AU for the “incredible honor,” noted that he began opposing creationism in his home state of Louisiana in 2010 when he was a 17-year-old high school student. The state, he pointed out, had passed a law allowing public schools to “supplement” teaching about evolution with other materials. Americans United, he said, assisted with getting the word out.
Although advocates of church-state separation have not won every battle, Kopplin said, “I think we’ve actually changed the terms of this debate in public schools.” He noted that polls show that young people are much more skeptical of creationist claims.
Walker, who is retiring at the end of the year after leading the BJC since 1999, noted that the ties between AU and the BJC go back to 1947, the year AU was founded. J.M. Dawson, an early BJC leader, served on the committee that formed Americans United.
“We’ve been partners ever since, working together day in and out,” Walker said.
Walker then offered an overview of the state of church-state separation in America. The picture is mixed, he said. The Supreme Court, he noted, has permitted local governments to open meetings with mostly Christian prayers and has allowed tax aid to flow to sectarian schools through vouchers.
But, Walker said, religious freedom remains robust in America, and the right of citizens to practice a faith or no faith is protected. He rejected Religious Right claims that Christians are persecuted and criticized efforts by some religious groups to use their beliefs as an instrument to deny and restrict the rights of others.
The Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, president of AU’s Board of Trustees, also spoke at the event, as did AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. (See the text of Jones’ remarks on page 20.) Videos of key parts of the AU Annual Meeting will be available for viewing at au.org soon.