Americans United In Action!

Staff Members And Chapter Activists Work To Defend Church-State Separation

Americans United staff members and chapter activists have had another busy month. Here’s some information on recent activities:

AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn wrote an op-ed column in late December that was distributed to newspapers and news websites nationwide. In the piece, Lynn urged all Americans to recognize that the church-state wall is a vital tool in protecting religious freedom.

“Religious liberty depends on the separation of church and state,” Lynn wrote. “In fact, it rests securely upon what Thomas Jefferson in 1802 called the ‘wall of separation between church and state.’”

He added, “It has become fashionable lately to take potshots at Jefferson’s wall and the entire concept of church-state separation. Supreme Court justices have done it, and so have politicians and some academics. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, has called church-state separation an ‘extra-constitutional doctrine’ and ‘a recent thing that is unhistorical and unconstitutional.’ (Jefferson and James Madison would be surprised to hear that.)

“None of these critics, however, has put forth a coherent vision of religious freedom that doesn’t involve a distance between church and state,” noted Lynn. “Nations that don’t have separation tend to fall into one of two categories: nightmarish theocracies favored by Iranian mullahs and the Islamist extremists of ISIS or the established churches that still cling to life in some European nations. The first is a recipe for oppression, and the second results in devitalized churches that do little more than provide pomp and ceremony for the state.”

Lynn’s opinion column ran in several newspapers, including Newsday of Long Island, N.Y.

On Dec. 22, a letter by the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, president of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones wrote to take issue with a definition of religious freedom that had been offered by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

“Religious freedom is the right to believe and practice your religion as your conscience dictates; it is not the right to impose your religious beliefs on others,” observed Jones. “If your church hierarchy opposes abortion, don’t have one. If your religious dogma teaches that homosexual marriage is a sin, don’t marry someone of the same sex. But your freedom to live as you choose is the same freedom that allows others to live as they choose.”

Maggie Garrett, AU’s legislative director, did a segment with Georgia Public Broadcasting Jan. 9. Garrett discussed the Georgia legislature’s practice of opening its sessions with prayer, which are almost always led by Christian ministers.

Bill Mefford, AU’s faith outreach specialist, and other AU staff members took part in a Jan. 9 Washington, D.C., rally opposing the nomination of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general. Mefford also led an AU contingent during the Women’s March on Washington Jan. 21. That same weekend, Field Director Erin Taylor exhibited for AU at the Creating Change Conference in Philadelphia.

Americans United chapters have remained busy as well. On Jan. 11, the San Diego Chapter of Americans United hosted a talk by Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisc. Barker was an evangelical preacher for 19 years before becoming a skeptic in 1983 and taking up church-state activism.

The AU chapter in Orange County, Calif., hosted a discussion Jan. 21 on the possible church-state implications of the End of Life Option Act, a state law that allows terminally ill adults to be prescribed aid-in-dying medication under certain conditions. 

The Naples, Fla., Chapter hosted an event Jan. 24 honoring activist David Goldstein with its Civic Award. The AU affiliate honored Goldstein for his “exemplary dedication and commitment to the diversity of American cultural and religious institutions and to living and leading in his beliefs in a manner that has aided our community’s development for all.”

Elsewhere in Florida, AU’s Clay County Chapter met for a meeting Jan. 28 at a public library in Fleming Island. Attendees took part in a discussion of the book The End of White Christian America by Robert Jones led by attorney Marianna Smith. (See a review of the book in the September 2016 issue of Church & State.)