Editor’s Note: 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, Church & State is profiling important figures in the life of the organization throughout the year. In this issue, we’re focusing on U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), a persistent champion of church-state separation in Congress.
On June 4, 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on a so-called “Religious Freedom Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution. Despite its name, the proposal had nothing to do with religious freedom. It was drafted by Christian nationalist groups to obliterate the separation of church and state.
Dozens of members of Congress spoke out against the proposal on the floor of the House that day, but one member in particular, U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) cut right to the chase: The amendment, which would have put mandatory prayer in public schools and guaranteed religious institutions access to taxpayer money, was, Scott noted, a direct assault on the First Amendment.
“[This] would have dire consequences if ever ratified,” Scott said. “The language in the proposed amendment ends the church-state separation by allowing religious groups to be directly funded by the government. So what happens when the Catholics must compete with the Baptists for limited school funding? … Which religious groups would and would not be funded? How safer will our schools be when children begin fighting over which prayers will be said or which religious expressions should or should not take place before each class day?”
When the vote was held on the constitutional amendment, it received a simple majority of 224-203, but that was far short of the two-thirds necessary for it to pass.
During its 75-year history, Americans United has enjoyed close relationships with many members of the U.S. Congress, men and women who have helped the organization defend the church-state wall in Washington, D.C., and turn back dangerous proposals that threatened religious freedom. Among the most prominent and most effective has been Scott, who since his election to the House in 1992, has emerged as a stalwart defender of separation of church and state.
Born in Washington, D.C., on April 30, 1947, Scott grew up in Newport News, Va. He’s a graduate of Harvard College and Boston College Law School. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1978 to 1983 and in the state Senate from 1983 to 1993. He was the first African American elected to Congress from Virginia since Reconstruction and only the second African American elected to Congress in Virginia’s history. He currently serves as chair of the House Education & Labor Committee.
Americans United, which has worked closely with Scott and his staff over the years, know that he’s a reliable champion for church-state separation, true religious freedom and public education.
“We could not have a better champion for the separation of church and state than Rep. Scott,” said Maggie Garrett, AU’s vice president for public policy. “His knowledge of the law and stalwart commitment to upholding the principles of religious freedom, first enshrined in his home state of Virginia, are unparalleled. We are grateful for his and his staff’s enduring dedication to our issues.”
Throughout his career, Scott has stood for public schools, voting against vouchers and other schemes that would siphon money away from the public system. In one of his early votes on the issue, Scott opposed a plan by U.S. Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) in October 1993 to allocate $400 million in taxpayer funds to subsidize voucher plans nationwide.
Four years later, when Armey and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) pushed a bill establishing a voucher plan in Washington, D.C., Scott was a strong opponent and called the scheme “a frontal assault on the idea of universal education for all” as well as a violation of church-state separation.
During the Trump years, Scott consistently spoke out against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ schemes to push vouchers and other forms of privatization.
“The U.S. Department of Education’s top priority should be to support state and local education leaders in providing a quality public education, from pre-K through college, for all students – regardless of where they live, how much money their parents make, or how they learn,” Scott said. “Despite the lack of evidence proving the effectiveness of vouchers, the secretary is proposing to divert taxpayer dollars to private schools and for-profit interests through the use of supplemental priorities. This is not aligned with the will of Congress nor taxpayers.”
In addition, Scott has championed legislation that would ensure that all children, regardless of race, religion, income or special needs are welcome in public schools.
Scott has also staked out a position as an avowed opponent of discrimination in taxpayer-funded programs. When “faith-based” initiatives became popular in the late 1990s and expanded under President George W. Bush, Scott took the lead in opposing efforts to allow religious groups to discriminate on the taxpayers’ dime.
During a Nov. 18, 2011, House hearing on how to fix problems with faith-based initiatives, Scott didn’t mince words.
“No discrimination with federal funds has been the policy of this government for decades – at least until the so-called faith-based initiative,” Scott said. “If this bigotry based on religion is tolerated, racial and sexual discrimination disguised as religious discrimination certainly follows. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out if you get a pass on religion, it will be impossible to enforce nondiscrimination laws based on race.”
Scott, a lifelong Episcopalian, has long been a supporter of religious freedom and has worked to fix the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 federal law that was intended to protect minority religious expression. Since its passage, the act has been misconstrued by the courts to allow harms to third parties in the name of religion. Scott is working to fix that by championing the Do No Harm Act, a bill that would return RFRA to its original purpose by putting a stop to its misuse as a tool to discriminate while maintaining the necessary component of allowing religious minorities the ability to practice their religion free from government restraints.
On June 20, 2019, Scott participated in a Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by Americans United to explain why the Do No Harm Act is necessary. A few days later, Scott, in his role as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, held a hearing on the misuse of RFRA. Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser was invited to give testimony.
In September of 2020, Scott took part in AU’s virtual National Advocacy Summit (now known as the Summit for Religious Freedom), during which he thanked AU for its work and stressed the need to pass the Do No Harm Act and end discrimination in federally funded programs.
Putting his own spin on a famous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – Scott told attendees, “Discrimination anywhere is an invitation to discriminate everywhere.”
Scott’s record on other church-state issues is equally impressive. He’s solidly pro-choice and called the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturning Roe v. Wade “disastrous.” He has voted for federal legislation to protect abortion rights.
Scott also supports LGBTQ rights and marriage equality. A member of the House LGBTQ Equality Caucus, Scott co-sponsored the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation that would codify protections for same-sex marriage that were upheld by the high court in 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision.
“We cannot stand idly by while Republican-controlled state legislatures and institutions continue to systematically attack rights and freedoms all over the country,” Scott said in a media statement after a House vote on the bill. “It was extremely disappointing to see the majority of House Republicans vote against this bill and against the freedoms and progress Americans have enjoyed for many years now. I will continue to be a steadfast ally of the LGBTQ+ community and I urge the Senate to quickly pass this legislation and send it to President Biden’s desk so we can protect freedom and marriage equality.”
Scott has never hesitated to take an unpopular stand. In 2011, he was one of few voices in Congress to oppose a symbolic resolution lauding “In God We Trust” as the national motto.
“We are debating whether or not to affirm and proliferate a motto that was adopted in 1956 and is under no threat of attack,” Scott asserted. “In addition to diverting attention away from substantive issues, the resolution is unconstitutional.”
On Oct. 23, 2017, Scott spoke on the House floor in recognition of the retirement of the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, former executive director of Americans United.
“It has been my pleasure to work with Rev. Lynn over the last two decades,” Scott said. “I commend him for his transformational service to Americans United, our Constitution, and our country, and I wish him well in his retirement.”
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said the organization values its partnership with Scott.
“Bobby Scott is a true champion of church-state separation,” Laser said. “His dedication to this cause has made our country a freer, fairer nation. It’s an honor to work alongside him.”