Americans United leaders convened in Washington, D.C., in late October to honor the past, mobilize for the present and prepare for the future of protecting church-state separation.
AU’s 2018 Annual Meeting brought together new CEO and President Rachel Laser and recently retired Executive Director Barry W. Lynn; freshly appointed board members and veteran AU advisers; youth activists and longtime leaders in AU chapters. They met to outline strategies, share information and figure out how best to defend church-state separation in a challenging political climate.
National news affecting religious freedom loomed large over the gathering, which began the day after an anti-Semitic terrorist murdered 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue and ended a week before crucial midterm elections.
“What an opportune moment for us all to be together,” Laser said during her “State of Americans United” address. “We need each other. We need to know that others are out there in the trenches fighting for what we know is crucial to our country’s wellbeing. So, just look around the room for a moment, take that in, and just take a little inspiration.
“I am humbled to be with you all today,” Laser continued. “I am humbled to be leading an organization that we all care about so much at such a critical moment.”
What an opportune moment for us all to be together. We need each other. We need to know that others are out there in the trenches fighting for what we know is crucial to our country’s wellbeing. So, just look around the room for a moment, take that in, and just take a little inspiration.
~ AU President and CEO Rachel Laser
AU Board Chairman the Rev. Neal Jones said Laser has proven that the trustees made the right choice when they hired her in early 2018.
“Our expectations of Rachel Laser have been exceeded,” Jones said. “We’ve been impressed by her courage and conviction as she has served as our voice against the discriminatory Muslim immigration ban, the disgraceful Kavanaugh hearings, the threat to end the Johnson Amendment’s protection of the integrity of houses of worship and the dozens of other assaults on the wall of separation by this misguided administration.
“We’re impressed with the public face Rachel presents on behalf of Americans United,” Jones added. “But we are perhaps even more impressed by her behind-the-scenes work of [ensuring] that AU will be better prepared to meet the challenges of our changing social and political landscape.”
Laser outlined several goals for Americans United, including “connecting the dots” between church-state separation and other social-justice issues, such as LGBTQ equality, reproductive freedom, immigration and racial justice. Laser also wants to broaden and diversify AU’s network of religious-freedom advocates nationwide, especially among young people, people of color and people of faith. And she believes it’s vital to highlight the faces and voices of those impacted by the erosion of the church-state wall.
“Sometimes we talk about our issue as a very cerebral, just legal issue, and it’s certainly that,” Laser said. “It’s a constitutional principle and we need to defend it in the courts like crazy. We will continue to do that.
“But it’s also important to show the folks who are the victims when church and state aren’t kept separate,” she said. “The folks who feel vulnerable at the thought of church and state not being separate.”
With that thought in mind, AU was pleased to single out a state activist, Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), to receive Americans United’s first-ever Barry W. Lynn Defender of the Wall Award.
Photo: From right, former AU Executive Director Barry Lynn; David Norr Youth Activist Awardee Kaylee Cole; Barry W. Lynn Defender of the Wall Awardee Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network; AU President and CEO Rachel Laser; AU Board Chairman Neal Jones.
Miller’s dogged work in Texas, where she’s achieved important victories even in the face of an often hostile culture, made her a natural for the award. Lynn, AU’s former executive director who retired a year ago after a quarter-century of leading AU, was on hand to present the award that bears his name.
Introducing Miller, Eugenie Scott, an AU board member and former director of the National Center for Science Education, noted that the TFN never shied away from a fight.
“When science education standards, or history or health education standards, are being revised in Texas, Texas Freedom Network is there to help to keep religious ideas out and good scholarship in,” Scott said. “Things would be so much worse in Texas if we did not have Kathy, her wonderful staff and Texas Freedom Network.”
During her remarks, Miller noted the long history of cooperation between Americans United and TFN throughout the latter’s 23-year history: “This partnership culminated in victory in 2017, just last year, when the last shred of anti-evolution junk was removed from the Texas science curriculum standards. Texas kids now know the earth is more than 6,000 years old.”
Miller said she and TFN are equally committed to foiling the agenda of President Donald Trump and his Religious Right allies to redefine fundamental American values. She referenced the attacks by the president and his base on freedom of speech, freedom of the press – and freedom of religion.
“Religious freedom somehow now means the right to discriminate against those with whom you disagree,” Miller said. “The idea that a person’s faith allows them to deny another person’s humanity was, I thought, overturned when we abolished whites-only lunch counters. But I was wrong. Right now, we have a Muslim travel ban, we [had] an attorney general who cites the Bible to support separating immigrant parents from their children at the border, we have entered the era of so-called religious refusals.
AU also gives an annual award to a youth activist. This year, the group honored Kaylee Cole with its David Norr Youth Activist Award for her work in defending secular public education in northern Louisiana.
Cole lives in Webster Parish in northwest Louisiana and attends the school district that neighbors Bossier Parish, where Americans United earlier this year filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of parents who object to widespread proselytism of their children in the public schools.
Cole and her mother, Christy Cole, know all too well what the Bossier families are experiencing: A few months earlier, they’d filed a similar lawsuit against Webster Parish School District with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I’ve seen my fair share of religion over the course of my whole life, and a lot of it is mostly due to my school,” said Cole, who is agnostic. “Lakeside, much like a lot of the schools around my area, partakes in religious proselytizing of Christianity. Being someone of no religious preference, I took offense to this and so did my family.
“There was morning prayer over the PA system, the rule that you were to stand while it was being said, Christian paraphernalia on the walls such as scripture, and many incidents over the years that resulted in a long list [of violations],” she said.
Cole added that one of the most difficult experiences she could recall occurred in seventh or eighth grade when she and other students were in a gymnasium after lunch, waiting for afternoon classes to begin. It was the beginning of the school year, and a student club called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) gave a presentation.
Then, she recalled, “[T]hey just decided to give a sermon right there. I was a Christian then, and it annoyed me because I knew it was illegal.” Even more upsetting to her was the reaction of her agnostic friend: “I looked over to him and he was crying. He said flatly, ‘I don’t want to hear this.’ And I couldn’t do anything. They locked the doors. The teachers let it happen. I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Webster Parish School District in May signed a consent decree agreeing to stop promoting prayers during school events, organizing religious services for students, unnecessarily holding school events at religious venues and allowing school officials to promote their personal religious beliefs to students.
During the awards cermony, Lynn told the crowd that Americans United with Laser at the helm is well-placed to meet the challenges ahead.
“I think you have chosen an extraordinary leader in Rachel,” Lynn said. He then addressed Laser directly: “I think you will lead us into the next period of time no matter what happens in the midterm elections, no matter what happens in 2020. I think you’ve done this organization proud already.”
Laser explained her vested interest in protecting church-state separation as she outlined several of the reasons she chose to take up the reins at Americans United.
“I took this job because I’m a religious minority – I’m Jewish. And I know how crucial it is for all of us to feel safe and like we belong in this country,” she said. “I took this job because freedom of conscience is so core to our identities that people are even willing to die to preserve their freedom of conscience.
“I took this job because America would not be America without the separation of religion and government,” she continued. “And I took this job because I love America’s vibrant and thriving diversity. And I feel that protecting church-state separation is integral to protecting and preserving that diversity in America.”
Americans United heads into the new year with new faces on the Board of Trustees and the National Leadership Council.
Newly appointed board members include:
- Gary Carleton, managing director of the Washington Litigation & Mediation Group in Washington, D.C.
- Michele “Shelly” Henry, attorney, Craig Henry Law Firm, Louisville, Ky.
- Adam R. Rose, vice chairman of Rose Associates Inc., New York, N.Y.
Photo: New AU Board of Trustees Gary Carleton, Adam R. Rose and Michele “Shelly” Henry, from left.
They replace retiring board members Ronal Madnick, Chuck Smith and John Suarez.
Madnick will fill a term on AU’s National Leadership Council. He’s joined on the NLC by new members Steven Green, Christine Guinther, Tom Plumbley and Lynne Riddle.
Photo: New members of AU’s National Leadership Council include Christine Guinther, Tom Plumbley, Lynne Riddle, Steven Green and Ronal Madnick, from left. Credit: Kate Perelman/Church & State