You can know with near certainty that something bad is coming, but it still feels awful when it happens. That’s how this Supreme Court term was for so many of us, who worked so hard for so long to achieve better outcomes in the many consequential cases on religious freedom before the court this term – including AU’s Kennedy v. Bremerton case.
We had ample warning. We knew about the leaked opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito overruling abortion rights in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case. We have borne witness to the Chief Justice John G. Roberts’ court repeatedly ruling in support of religion, and generally Christians. We knew that some members of the court were hostile to church-state separation.
Even with this knowledge, it was hard to believe the court would rule against core American values again and again. Was the city of Boston going to be forced to fly the Christian flag from its flagpole? Were Maine taxpayers going to have to fund the teaching of a religion that is not their own? Was the religious freedom of countless public school students going to fall victim to the false narrative that a coach who pressured students to join him in prayer at the 50-yard line was just praying “privately”?
And could a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body according to her own religious and moral beliefs be taken away after nearly 50 years?
Sadly, yes, yes, yes and yes.
We knew these decisions were coming, but they still stung. And they continue to sting. Personally, I feel devastated, offended and worried. During a meeting of the AU staff, some folks shed tears, some shared their frustration and some offered hope.
Many of us are not ready yet to move beyond grieving these terrible losses and what they mean for the future; we’re worried about what comes next – and that’s perfectly understandable. Our rights are under assault.
So where do we go from here?
We must start by acknowledging our anger and pain. This won’t slow us down. It will enable us to feel the power of our large, caring community and to heal enough to keep fighting for our ideals, hopefully more united than ever.
Step two is channeling our energy into something productive. In Americans United’s case, we’re calling for a national recommitment to church-state separation, one that includes a strong defense of our public schools – part of AU’s historic mission. In honor of our 75th anniversary this year, we pledge a full-throttle defense of the idea that public funds must go only to public schools. Without apology.
The court has said that if certain school aid programs exist, they must include religious schools. The court did not say states are required to create these programs. The answer here is obvious: End these programs. No more private school vouchers. No more public funds for private schools. It’s time to put the focus back on public schools, which serve 90% of our children.
But we can’t stop there. The recommitment to separation of church and state must make clear that this principle is the linchpin for LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom and the rights of religious and racial minorities. People must know that our nation’s rich diversity and democracy itself depend on church-state separation. We must cultivate a modern understanding of this principle.
Here’s what we want: When Americans think of separation of church and state, they don’t only think about school prayer or crosses on public property. They think of their daughter’s right to marry the woman she loves, their friend’s or their own ability to access an abortion or birth control, the right of young people to read books with LGBTQ themes, the right to be Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist and not to have to forsake your beliefs to be a full member of your school sports team. With this understanding, the American people will reject what the court is foisting on us.
It’s easy to feel discouraged right now, but giving up would be playing into our opposition’s hands. They want us to stop fighting. But we must persevere. Our actions have the power to shape the future of this country, not only in the long term, but even now.
We must find the courage to continue to believe change is possible, and then make it happen. As Amanda Gorman writes: “There is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United.