Editor’s Note: Allison Mahaley, a veteran of public education turned political activist, served as president of Americans United’s Durham-Orange County, N.C., Chapter from 2015-2017. She remains involved with the chapter and spoke recently with Church & State writer Rokia Hassanein about her activities on behalf of Americans United.
Q: What made you want to get involved in church-state separation and religious freedom activism?
Mahaley: I was doing a lot of research about support for public schools, and as I started networking and talking to people about where the fight to dismantle public schools was coming from, I found out about [writer] Katherine Stewart’s work and then Americans United from the local chapter here. I immediately got connected with Katherine and her body of work, and all the stuff she had uncovered about the Religious Right, and that led me down a rabbit hole.
I went to an Americans United local meeting and attended a training that [Legislative Director] Maggie Garrett offered. Maggie invited me to come to the national meeting, which was a couple weeks later. I was able to do that.
Q: Living in North Carolina, how did you lead the Durham-Orange County Chapter to build bridging relationships with faith communities, especially conservative ones?
Mahaley: I think that is something Bill Mefford [AU’s faith organizer] has really helped us get centered around – finding commonalities and being able and willing to coexist around one point, even if we don’t agree on some other things. It was really interesting to see what happened when our bathroom bill was introduced, and even though there were some very, very conservative religious leaders that came out in favor of that bathroom bill, far more religious leaders stood up against it.
Q: I noticed you met more social justice-oriented faith leaders like the Rev. William Barber II, who led Moral Monday marches in North Carolina. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What is the importance of partnering with faith leaders to promote true religious freedom?
Mahaley: A picture of me with Rev. Barber was taken when I was sitting in the airport waiting for Katherine Stewart to arrive. So 15 minutes before Katherine landed, I look up and Rev. Barber is scrambling out of the exit, and there was no one around him, which never happens. I jumped to my feet and ran up to him and was like, “Rev. Barber!” He recognized me because I have been at so many of the Moral Mondays, and I said, “I’m here with Americans United to pick up this woman, and I want to talk to you about separation of church and state.” He said to me “Absolutely. What we are building is a moral movement, and it has no party. This is rooted in right vs. wrong, and everything I do is rooted in my own personal faith and convictions.” He said, “I totally want the separation of church and state because I want the government to be an agent for all people of all faiths. Everyone is entitled to their own freedom of religion, and what we’re talking about is a morality issue.”
When he spoke like that, it really spoke to me because personally, I’m not a Christian. I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and so I very much have experience living in North Carolina and raising children in North Carolina outside of a Christian-centered society. Being a religious minority myself, it was very reassuring to hear him, as someone who’s part of the mainstream faith, respect me in that way.
What I’ve come to learn through all this organizing work is that most faith leaders are not interested in evangelizing the whole world and converting everyone and putting all their energy in that. What they really want is to build partnerships, to build a better world, and we all agree on the vision of that.
Q: You’re a retired teacher and a strong advocate for public schools, and you’ve consistently criticized Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, who’s prioritizing private school voucher schemes over public schools. As a former public school teacher, can you tell me ways you’ve observed firsthand how vouchers have hurt public education?
Mahaley: I see vouchers as just one of the tools that they [Religious Right] use to dismantle a public institution, and schools aren’t the only public institution that they’re dismantling. They’re simultaneously dismantling the courts, and they’re simultaneously undermining faith in other public institutions. It’s all part of a long-range plan to galvanize the power and control that they are currently enjoying.
It’s really terrifying, but because of vouchers and because we’ve been able to really articulate a very good argument against vouchers, we can use that as a way of outlining the bigger picture. I think we have been successful in bringing together a very broad coalition of people who are willing to work against the radical right now. For example, the League of Women Voters has taken a strong position against school vouchers. We’ve got democracy organizations that are now taking stands against school vouchers because it’s been clear that it’s been an infringement of the First Amendment, and when you start chipping away at those rights, you can see how that undermines the democracy as a whole. I think that we are being effective in exposing [vouchers] as one particular method that the radical right is using in their broader arsenal of weapons to change our way of life in America.
I’m really pleased to know that Texas has been able to resist having vouchers passed, and other Southern states in the Bible belt are starting to see it and pushing back, and I think that we’re building a broad coalition here in North Carolina to push back on it. The power here in North Carolina is so concentrated right now and so cemented that it’s really hard to stop anything, but we’re really starting to see it erode. I think we’re seeing some hope on the horizon.
Q: What do you think are some of the most pressing religious freedom/church-state separation issues we face on the national stage today?
Mahaley: On the national stage, it’s like we’re in this bizarre land of Trump forming this unholy alliance with the Religious Right. He is propagating this notion that we are a Christian nation, and it’s such a hard thing to push back on when we’re also fighting so hard on so many issues every single day. It’s like we’re playing whack-a-mole with all these other issues. The undertone of all of this is because we’re a “Christian nation,” God will make it all right. And so it turns what really should be something very private and very sacred – literally sacred – it turns it into this kind of toxic, weaponized religion that people start pushing back on.
What’s really interesting for me is because I’m a Unitarian humanist and I’m a member of the American Humanist Association, since Trump got elected, it has made me even more committed to attending my services every week and to being more grounded in my Unitarian Universalist principles and to pull that community around me as part of my self-care plan.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of your AU experience?
Mahaley: I have had the opportunity to network with people. I have been able to be at the table with the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. I’ve been able to be at the table with the executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches and more. It has just been a very rewarding experience to build coalitions with other people who have a similar worldview, and that worldview is that we are better off together and we have an obligation to one another to build a better world.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t touched on?
Mahaley: I think that it’s both a blessing and a curse for Americans United that we are a single-issue advocacy group. Seventy-one years ago, when Americans United was formed, it made sense to be laser-focused on a single issue because it would pop up that way, but because of the way the Religious Right has strategized and coordinated such an insidious scourge on the American democracy, it [church-state separation] has become intersectional with every other issue that there is.