Editor’s Note: Amanda Scott is an activist for church-state separation in a tough state – Alabama. Scott, a member of Americans United’s Youth Advisory Council, is currently studying to be a paralegal and hopes to become an attorney. She spoke with Church & State recently about her work on behalf of freedom of conscience in the heart of the Bible Belt.
Q. How did you get interested in advocating for separation of church and state?
Scott: I’ve always been an avid reader of the news, and in 2011, I read an article about the city of Bay Minette, Alabama – a city where I now go to school – setting up a program called Operation Restore Our Community. This program would have allowed people convicted of misdemeanors to attend church services instead of serving jail time. In the article I read that Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations called the program unconstitutional and threatened to take legal action against the city. At the time I had no formal legal education, so I relied on my own common sense: How could this possibly be right? What about Muslims or Jews? Can they substitute church services for mosque or temple services? What about non-religious people who do not attend any religious services; what alternative do they have? These questions led me to research legal issues involving the separation of church and state and the rights of religious minorities. I started to notice these issues pop up everywhere and knew I had to do something.
Q. Alabama is a tough state for groups like Americans United. It’s the home of “Ten Commandments judge” Roy Moore and several probate judges who are resisting marriage equality. What tips can you share with us about successful activism in such a difficult environment?
Scott: It’s important for Americans United and other national organizations to have an active state chapter with people who are willing to do the groundwork. Chapter leaders must be willing to attend local government meetings and school board meetings, identify themselves as members of the community and explain how the issue affects them. Americans United can send letters from Washington, D.C., but the community is likely to dismiss their complaint as “just a group in Washington” if no one in the community comes forward.
Q. Americans United has always been a coalition of religious and non-religious people. How important is it to have a diversity of voices in the battle to preserve the church-state wall? Who are your key allies?
Scott: When I was coordinating public testimony before the Mobile County Commission against a resolution to display “In God We Trust” in the Mobile Government Plaza, I knew how important it was for all voices to be heard in the debate. I reached out to both religious and non-religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Pagans and atheists.
One of my key religious allies was local attorney Robert Beckerle with the Beckerle Law Firm. Mr. Beckerle is a former Baptist deacon and former president of the Alabama chapter of Americans United. At the meeting, he testified that as a religious person, he considered the display to be sacrilegious. He reasoned that it cheapens God’s name by reducing it to a slogan, and proper recognition of God should be through worship and praise. He questioned how God’s name could be “ceremonial,” “patriotic” and “not religious.” Later on, Mr. Beckerle became a key ally in the fight for marriage equality, showing up to one of my rallies wearing a pin with “Another Baptist for Equality.” How cool is that?
Q. Your opposition to the “In God We Trust” sign in Mobile County led to harassment, and you even received some threats. Can you tell us what that was like and how you responded?
Scott: For the first few weeks I did not leave my house because I feared for my safety and the safety of my mother. In the past, I had read about how people who challenged religion in government had their houses burned down or their pets killed. Fortunately, nothing happened to us. The Mobile Press-Register ran a story about the backlash; I commented that I was disappointed by the reaction of the community and reaffirmed my commitment to defending the separation of church and state and the rights of religious minorities.
Q. Those of us on the national staff of Americans United are often asked how we can get young people involved in our work. What are your thoughts on that? Are there some things we should be doing differently?
Scott: At the Americans United meeting in November, the Youth Advisory Council presented a guide on how to best reach and engage youth. Among my suggestions were to ensure the organization’s leadership is diverse and to host events that appeal to all demographics. Not just young people, but people of color, women, LGBT people and religious minorities. Young people are more likely to become a part of an organization if they see they are represented and their voices are heard.
Q. What do you believe are the biggest threats facing separation of church and state right now?
Scott: Using religion to justify discrimination against LGBT people and women. In Alabama, I lobbied against the Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act (HB 56), which would have allowed probate judges to refuse to solemnize marriages based on religious objections, and the Health Care Rights of Conscience Act (HB 491), which would have allowed health-care professionals to refuse to offer reproductive health services based on religious or ethical objections. These bills were defeated, but similar legislation continues to be introduced all across the country, and that’s why Americans United’s project “Protect Thy Neighbor” is so critically important.
Q. How do you respond to those who say that America is a Christian nation and people should just learn to accept that?
Scott: This is the most common argument I face, so I have had a lot of practice refuting it. When they argue the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation, I explain the framers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were clear in their intent to establish a separation of church and state. I cite Jefferson’s opposition to proclaiming a national day of prayer and Madison’s opposition to congressional prayers.
Q. What advice would you give to someone in a community who is dealing with a church-state issue in a public school or in local government?
Scott: First, try to resolve the issue privately. For example, if you’re concerned about a church-state issue in your child’s school, try arranging a meeting with the superintendent to explain your position. The superintendent may be more likely to listen to you if they know you are a concerned parent of a student in the district. Think critically about whether you want to go public and the possible repercussions for doing so. If you have chosen to go public, then stay strong. Remember what you’re doing is not only legally right, but ethically right. You’re not only defending your rights, but the rights of everyone in your community.
Q. What are your goals for the future? Would you like to pursue activism full time?
Scott: I graduate with my associate’s degree in paralegal studies in May, and I will be applying to schools in Washington, D.C., to pursue a bachelor’s degree in political science. My goal is to become a public-interest attorney specializing in civil rights and civil liberties. I am interested in pursuing a career in both non-profit advocacy and public service. To me that would be like pursuing activism full time.
Q. Is there anything you would like to add?
Scott: I’m grateful to serve on the Youth Advisory Council of Americans United with a group of inspiring young activists, and I look forward to continue working with the organization to defend the constitutional freedoms we all hold dear. Thank you for inviting me to be interviewed.