There is a lot to be upset about these days. Many of us, from Baby Boomers to Gen X (my generation), feel like the threats to America’s democracy and problems in our country are unprecedented in our lifetimes — especially when it comes to the separation of church and state.
But I’ve always been a believer in keeping my eye on the prize. For Americans United, a key focus is, and must continue to be, reaching a new generation of leaders. I’m so proud of the work we are doing in this space.
A few weeks ago, Alicia Johnson, AU’s national organizer and student network manager, sent the staff an email with a list of the winners of Americans United’s 2023 Student Contest. This year, the contest (our eighth one) was open to high school and college students, and we accepted both traditional written essays and short videos.
As usual, I had a lot to do that day, but I couldn’t resist reading the essays and watching the videos because they always boost my mood. The essays quoted John Lennon, envisioned a world where “God” is never written beside the American flag and dreamed of a day when no parents must fight to stop inappropriate forms of religion in a public school. In one of the winning videos, a rap artist speaks truth to power about our country’s religious discrimination problem. These young people are amazing and really get our issue. They should give all of us hope for the future.
The winning essays in the high school and college categories appear in this issue of Church & State. I urge you to read them, but don’t stop there. At au.org/student-contest-winners-2023 you can watch the videos and read more winning essays. You’re going to be impressed!
But the contest is just one thing AU is doing to engage a new generation of leaders. Alicia also oversees our Youth Organizing Fellowship (YOF). Now in its fourth year, the YOF brings together youth leaders from around the country for a yearlong crash course in church-state separation. The fellows receive training in effective communication about AU’s mission, interfaith advocacy, leadership and organizing.
When their year is done, the fellows join the YOF alumni network — already 30 strong — because we want these bright minds to stay in touch. So far, we’ve gotten great feedback from participants. A recent fellow noted, “As youth, we are the future. This fellowship has given me the opportunity to step into my power and find community while organizing for church-state separation alongside advocates across the country.”
And then there’s the Legal Academy. Every summer, AU and allied groups bring together law students for four days of intense but inspiring in-person learning. All participants are legal interns for a diverse group of impact litigation groups and have indicated an interest in pursuing careers in public interest law after graduation. The program teaches them legal skills, strategy and judicial philosophy — but more than anything connects our different issue areas (including, of course, church-state separation) to each other and forges powerful social networks for these budding leaders.
The 2023 Legal Academy brought together 66 law students from 36 law schools. If anyone is going to turn the tide in the courts, it’s these dedicated young people.
Finally, every summer we have a regular roster of interns. We rely on these interns to do substantive work, and many describe their time with AU as transformational. AU also has a program of legal fellows who serve one or two years with us. They’re on the front lines of our work, with some even arguing cases in federal court. We know that many of them go on to work in public interest law, and a few have come back to Americans United as full-time employees.
I was struck by something Kylie Marozsan, who won first place in the college division of our essay contest, said. She pointed out that when it comes to reproductive freedom, she has fewer rights than her mother did. It’s hard for me to believe that our country is in a place where I gained more rights than my mom — only to see my daughters lose them. But this is also the kind of fact that gets Gen Z energized.
Next time you are feeling overwhelmed by America’s current challenges, remember these young people. With the help you provide Americans United, I guarantee you that they are going to lead our country to a better place.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.