As we come to the end of another year – almost my second full one at Americans United – I’d like to pause with you to reflect on the achievements of the past 12 months. First, a confession: It’s hard to hit the pause button when the pace at AU continues to be fast and furious, as we fight constant attacks on church-state separation at the same time as we implement our own proactive plans. But it’s so important for all of us to take stock of AU’s accomplishments – especially during challenging times like this.
The truth is, there are way too many successes to fit into this column. So please know that the selection below is a mere sampling of what we have to celebrate.
We started this year with AU’s Board of Trustees and senior staff working hard together to finalize a five-year strategic roadmap. This roadmap charts a course for increasing our revenue, igniting a national movement and raising the visibility of AU and our issue. To what end? So that we have the greatest strength and resources possible to continue to lead in safeguarding our constitutional promise of church-state separation. Creating this roadmap was a huge achievement in setting AU up for success.
Key to the roadmap is AU’s first-ever National Advocacy Summit, which will take place in March. The Summit will bring together AU supporters from across the country to strengthen our movement and reclaim religious freedom. We’ll also be debuting our first-ever Visibility Campaign, which will brand AU and our issue and tell a relatable story, particularly to millennials and members of Generation Z (audiences that are targeted in the road-map), about why they should care about church-state separation. I’m extremely proud of the enormous amount of work that the Outreach and Engagement and Communications Departments have already put into these projects and grateful to all AU departments for their collaboration.
Our roadmap leads with the mandate to continue AU’s leadership role in shaping and enforcing laws that protect church-state separation, and our Public Policy and Legal Departments have risen to this challenge. In July, AU helped shine a spotlight in the U.S. Capitol on the misuse of “religious freedom” to discriminate by assisting U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in leading a House Education and Labor Committee hearing titled “Do No Harm: Examining the Misapplication of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” It was a personal highlight to testify at this hearing, even if I did have one awkward moment where I referenced two of my kids being there to watch without realizing they had left!
Our Public Policy team was also successful in ensuring that nearly 60 Project Blitz bills introduced in state legislatures this year did not pass. And here in D.C., AU worked with members of Congress to fight efforts to reauthorize the D.C. voucher plan, the only federally funded private school voucher program in the country. AU was also proud to support the Equality Act, which passed the House of Representatives this year. The bill would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, while also ensuring that “religious freedom” cannot override the protections in the bill.
On the legal front, AU’s attorneys saw some key victories in the courts this past year. We successfully challenged a large set of constitutional violations in a public school district in Louisiana, resulting in a consent decree that not only resolved the violations but put in place a first-of-its-kind monitoring committee in the school district. In another win, we put an end to a Florida county’s religiously discriminatory selection of speakers to deliver opening invocations at council meetings. And in our most recent victory, a federal court in California declared unlawful the Trump administration’s dangerous Denial of Care Rule and followed two other federal judges in blocking it from going into effect. (And remember, every year, our attorneys resolve hundreds of problems without going to court.)
Lastly, allow me to brag about AU’s Board of Trustees, which has revised and streamlined the board’s processes and protocols to a level that should make other CEOs green with envy. Our trustees not only give to AU; they have all made us their top charity.
It’s been a whirlwind – and another great year for Americans United! Please take a moment to celebrate not just AU but also your own role in sustaining this great organization and crucial cause. We absolutely couldn’t do it without you. Wishing you and yours a joyful holiday season and/or peaceful end of the year.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.