May 2024 Church & State Magazine - May 2024

The Summit for Religious Freedom 2024: High energy, high impact

  Rachel Laser

When the Summit for Religious Freedom (SRF) ended, I found myself thrilled with how amazingly it went, yet also sad that it was over! SRF, which took place April 13-16, was that great, as I experienced it. From the feedback we’ve received, I know many of you felt the same way.

My 80-year-old mom and 86-year-old dad attended SRF, and my mom even led a delegation during visits with legislators on Capitol Hill. She said the vibe at the Summit reminded her of “the Movement,” meaning the civil rights movement of which she and my Dad were part. When I asked her why, she told me it was being with people who cared enough to come together from near and far and who want to be active for the cause.

We really did come from near and far. SRF attracted people from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We had a capacity crowd of 300 in the room and more than 500 watching online.

Young people were a real presence at SRF, showcasing AU’s successful efforts to engage younger advocates. Ten percent of SRF participants were under 25, and 27% were under 39. SRF also attracted many people who feel particularly vulnerable during this rise of White Christian Nationalism: We were 56% women, 39% LGBQT+ and 8% transgender or gender non-conforming.

True to AU’s typical advocacy, SRF brought the religious (53%) and nonreligious (47%) together. Of the religious, 54% were Christian, and 46% were a religious minority, including Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Pagan and Buddhist.

We were a beautiful mosaic of Americans united, fighting to protect church-state separation, the foundational value that enables us to come together across our differences and build a stronger democracy.

Our first keynote, Dr. Anthea Butler, chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Religious Studies, started us out with a dose of reality, warning that Christian Nationalism “is probably one of the most dangerous things that’s happened in this country” because “what they want is a theocracy.”

The next keynote, transgender journalist Erin Reed, told us about the nationwide Christian Nationalist attacks on the trans community. She reminded us that our most radical act of resistance is to use our “queer joy.” I took that to mean that to win, we must proudly embrace and even celebrate our differences. 

Our final keynote speaker, U.S. Rep.  Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), hailed SRF attendees as “secularists and constitutional patriots.” He thanked the crowd for the warm welcome he received, noting that while his book Unthinkable was banned in both Russia and Texas, “I’m making it with Americans United!” (He had earlier generously spent time with participants in a book signing.)

Even though we were talking about a somber topic, the positivity and power in the room were infectious. Our videographer told us how glad he was to be there. Even some of the support staff working the event remarked on how much they learned from the sessions.

SRF workshops and panels concluded the afternoon of April 15, but a lot of folks stayed for movie night, where we ate chocolate and popcorn as we took in Stephen Ujlaki’s documentary “Bad Faith,” a searing look at Christian Nationalism. It was followed by a panel of experts who seemed to walk right out of the film onto the stage. AU supporter Todd Stiefel helped fund the film and joined the panel.

April 16’s Hill Day, where we turned our “passion into action,” saw a 25% increase in attendees who lobbied Congress in support of church-state separation and the Do No Harm Act, a bill Americans United helped craft to ensure religious freedom is a shield and not a sword to harm others. We visited just under 70 offices of members of Congress.

My group on the Hill included AU plaintiff Gabe Rutan- Ram, who with his wonderful wife Liz, wanted to foster to adopt a child but was turned away from a taxpayer-funded foster care agency because he’s Jewish. Gabe has a powerful story to tell about church-state separation.

But we all can play an important role in protecting church-state separation. We can vote. Or recommend a book we bought at SRF to a friend. Or have a hard conversation with people in our lives about church-state separation. Or convince a friend to join Americans United.

SRF helped us all remember that we can win in the long term. We can keep church and state separate. Because we have the Constitution and the majority on our side. And because we have each other. 

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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