Persuading Young People To Stand Up For Church-State Separation

I am often asked by others in my AARP-qualified cohort if young people are interested in church-state separation. Well, there is good news to report from around the country.

I just finished a late-winter speaking tour and had some very positive responses from younger folks in a number of locations. At a major Humanist conference in Florida, students came from as far away as Virginia and North Carolina to learn about how Humanists can work with religious people to defend the church-state wall. A group of students from Virginia has already booked me for a fall appearance at the University of Virginia.

I headed out to Houston a week later. One event there was a debate at the University of Houston Law Center with Kevin "Seamus" Hasson, founder of a conservative legal group called the Becket Fund. The event was underwritten by a local law firm, and I was pleasantly surprised but admittedly shocked to find nearly 600 people, mostly students, literally filling every space in the school's largest auditorium.

One school official joked, as students crowded in the aisles, "I hope the fire marshal doesn't drop by. It wouldn't look good to have code violations at the law school!" Although obviously not all of the students agreed with my strong separationist view, I sensed growing support as the debate went on.

After the event, some students waited for as long as half an hour to ask questions and get information about Americans United. As a footnote, one grizzled audience member came up and made a point of announcing loudly that he was on a mission on behalf of all military veterans to defend former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's Ten Command­ments display. Many of the students around me were amused when a younger man chimed in, "I'm a vet too, and I won't be signing on to your project."

A few days later, I participated in a Constitution Day presentation at Hofstra Law School. In that audience was a young man interested in starting a local radio program about the Constitution. Also in the audience was an attorney with a prominent New York firm that drafted a friend-of-the-court brief defending church-state separation on behalf of Buddhist groups in the highly controversial Supreme Court case involving the Pledge of Allegiance.

When I returned to Washington, I began to prepare for a "unique opportunity." Planned Parenthood, as part of a series of events at comedy clubs all over the nation, had asked some of us in the activist community to do five minutes of stand-up comedy at a D.C. venue. The idea was to mix the activists among professional comedians to promote the upcoming April 25 March for Women's Lives here in the nation's capital.

I grew a little uneasy when I learned that only one other activist had agreed to try this challenging format. Mildly petrified, I waited in the wings to be introduced very aware that I was following two very funny professional comedians. Host Bob Somerby announced I was next. When he uttered the phrase "Americans United for Separation of Church and State," the full house cheered. With that response before I opened my mouth, I figured I couldn't go too far wrong. With the exception of one joke about a snail that fell short, I'm told things went extremely well. This audience, almost entirely in their 20s and 30s, well understood the clear need to keep Religious Right leaders from dominating the culture.

I really don't need to leave the AU office to find evidence of the commitment of young people to our issues. We always have far more applicants for internship positions and legal fellowships than we can possibly accommodate. Moreover, Rena Levin, among other things our campus organizer, has found a burgeoning market in many parts of the country. There is so much interest that she has produced a pamphlet devoted to why students need to be active in the struggle to maintain religious freedom.

Rena recently told me, "This is a great, largely untapped, source of dynamic thoughtful and creative people." Several of our past interns are now members of our National Advisory Council.

So, instead of sometimes sitting in a room with our hair graying and asking how we can get more young people involved, maybe we need to ask instead how can we transfer leadership in a way that respects the wisdom of longtime activists and engages the creative passion of younger ones. When people see more age diversity when they enter a room, I'd like to think everyone will be more comfortable.

OK, I know some of you are still thinking about the snail joke, so here it is, as I learned it from Chicago songwriter Michael Smith: A snail was mugged by two turtles. When the police arrived and asked what happened, the snail replied, "I don't know; it all happened so fast."

Maybe that's not top-rate materal. But it reminds me that the pace of the work that needs to be done to support church-state separation is quite rapid. It will take people of different backgrounds and ages to fill in the ranks of religious freedom's defenders.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.