March 2024 Church & State Magazine - March 2024

Audacious outreach: How I brought AU’s message to a crowd that really needs to hear it

  Rachel Laser

On Jan.  31, I spoke on a panel in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society about religious freedom and how it is faring in America today. The hook for the event was the recent 30th anniversary of a federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the other panelists included former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement and the head of the Becket Fund — both of whom are frequently on the other side of AU in court.

The most poignant part of the experience was being at this event with Americans United’s Director of Digital Communications Amy Couch. Amy, who gave me permission to write about this, has done amazing things for AU’s social media presence. She is also a lesbian who comes from a conservative Christian background and has had to endure personal trauma to live as her true self and love freely.

Amidst a sea of people who seemed OK with justifying LGBTQ+ discrimination as part of religious freedom, the main person I could see in the audience when I reached the pinnacle of my remarks was Amy, looking stoical and proudly sporting a trans rights blue-and-pink pin.

“I wish we could agree that religious freedom shouldn’t be used to harm ANY of us,” I told the attendees, feeling my connection with Amy in the room and wishing they could all see her as clearly as I could.

I believe deep in my bones that Americans United is on the right side of morality and history, and that made me feel deeply secure and unshakeable — even in a room where I’m sure there was significant disagreement with my perspective. Americans United’s talented staff also made sure that I was more than prepared, so I relished the opportunity to make our case before the hundreds of Federalist Society attendees who were there in person and online.

AU’s argument is essentially this: Our intentionally pluralistic and diverse society cannot thrive if we weaponize the sacred concept of religious freedom to harm other people in ways that our shared American laws forbid. Sometimes the sticking point when I present this argument is “harm.” Religious extremists claim that a baker, for example, has the right to turn away gay couples, lest he will be harmed. But we’re still on strong ground here because if your claim is you will be harmed unless you can harm someone else, then you are really looking for our government to favor you — not for equality, the premise of our democracy.

Just one moment that day made me hesitate: I was naming what I saw as the essence of the disagreement between AU and the Federalist Society, explaining, “Where our common ground seems to break down is when primarily conservative Christians use religious freedom arguments to violate the rights of people who already have less power and security in our society. To violate the rights of people our laws are designed to give equal protection to.” I was referring to the many attacks on LGBTQ+ people, women, religious minorities and the nonreligious in the name of “religious freedom.”

I paused before specifying that it’s primarily conservative Christians who are weaponizing religious freedom against more vulnerable groups of people. As I’ve noted before, as a Jew, I never feel great about calling out (even one specific group of) Christians. It makes me feel vulnerable, and I know, of course, that though it’s primarily Christians who are doing this, it’s not solely Christians. Additionally, I’m aware that people may be less open to hearing you when they feel attacked or defensive.

So why say that? Because naming the truth might soften at least some listeners. Because I wanted my co-panelists to have to think very hard about their willingness to say it’s wrong to weaponize religious freedom against Black people, but not against LGBTQ+ people. Because, as Ida B. Wells explained: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Something fascinating happened when the panel ended. Multiple people approached me and thanked me for being there and contributing so much to the conversation. One of the opposing attorneys in our lawsuit challenging a religious public charter school in Oklahoma even reached out to express appreciation; the attorney had watched the event virtually.

Did I change hearts and minds that day? Probably not. But it’s important to dialogue across divides to hear your opponents’ arguments and to continue to speak your truth. You never know when you might reach someone.

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Congress needs to hear from you!

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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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