Editor’s Note: The year 2021 was full of ups and downs – for the country, and for church-state separation. As the year draws to a close, we're looking back at the top 10 church-state stories, how Americans United rose to the challenge to defend religious freedom and what’s on the horizon for 2022.
Defending public education has been part of Americans United’s mission from day one of our founding, and in 2021, we carried forth that proud tradition in lots of different ways.
AU’s Legal Department helps people all over the country resolve problems when public schools force students (and sometimes even staff) to participate in religious activities. We have a robust program of non-litigation advocacy: Have you encountered a problem? Let us know! AU’s Public Policy Department keeps an eye open for bills in Congress and in the state legislatures that threaten public education and opposes them. Our Communications Department exposes the lies Christian nationalists tell about our schools and provides members of the media with accurate information.
A highlight of 2021 was the launch of AU’s “Know Your Rights” campaign, which featured a series of guides for students, parents/guardians and teachers. Written in a user-friendly style, the guides were designed to let people know what they can and can’t do when it comes to religion in public education.
AU followed the release of the guides with a special series of blog posts from staff members offering their personal stories about religion in school, which were reprinted in Church & State, and then AU invited its supporters to chime in – and many did. (You can read our supporters’ stories here and here.)
But defending public schools means more than simply keeping the schools free of things like coercive prayer, mandatory Bible reading, teacher proselytism and creationism. We also must ensure that public schools have the funding they need to educate America’s children – and that means opposing private school vouchers and other schemes to divert taxpayer funds away from public schools and into private religious education.
Again, AU is no stranger to this work. For nearly 75 years, we’ve opposed taxpayer funding of religious education and have proudly argued that public funds belong only to public schools. We’ve pointed out that not only do voucher plans compel Americans to pay for someone else’s religion (hence they are a backdoor form of church tax), they also threaten the very survival of public education.
Unfortunately, this aspect of our work has become more challenging in recent years. The conservative Supreme Court has upheld voucher plans and ruled that religious schools must be allowed to take part in them. Next year, the high court may go even farther and rule that under certain conditions, public support of religious instruction is required. Knowing these decisions will embolden voucher supporters, AU launched the “Free To Be Me” campaign earlier this year to educate people on why they should oppose vouchers.
The country has strayed far from the founders’ vision of a nation where religious groups relied on voluntary contributions, not tax aid, to spread their doctrines – but we can get back there. It will take hard work and time, but with your support, AU will ensure that an appropriately funded, secular system of public schools continues to serve America’s children.
Americans United is in this for the long haul. We hope you are too.