State Of The States

Why Local Church-State Activism Is Crucial

It’s always worth remembering that the battle to maintain the separation of church and state isn’t something that plays out solely in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

In fact, church-state battles can and do erupt regularly in most of our 50 states. Pro-separation activists must always be diligent.

This issue of Church & State is a good reminder of that. We focus on a local judge who wants to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, a public school teacher accused of promoting his religion in class and an array of problematic measures in state legislatures.

Americans United fights these battles every day. AU’s Legal Department sends letters to state and local governmental agencies, warning them when the church-state barrier is crossed.

At the same time, AU’s network of chapters works to monitor activities in the states and respond quickly when threats arise.

In Missouri, misguided legislators introduced a dangerous amendment to the state constitution that would supposedly protect “religious speech” in public schools and in government settings. In fact, the amendment is designed to subject students and others to unwanted forms of religious proselytism at public events.

When a hearing was held on the matter, Cynthia Holmes, an attorney who is a longtime AU activist and member of the St. Louis Chapter, showed up to explain why the proposal is unnecessary.

In La Crosse, Wisc., AU activists decided to be proactive. The Wisconsin Chapter erected a billboard in a prominent area of the city reading, “Constitutional Separation of Church and State: The best friend religion ever had. Protect it and it will protect you” with the chapter’s Web address below.

These are just two examples of AU activism at the grassroots. There are many others. This type of activity is important and will continue to be an integral part of AU’s work.

It’s too easy for local and state legislators to dismiss the views of a national group based in Washington. But when they hear from their own constituents – the people they are charged with serving every day and who will determine their fate in future elections – they have to pay attention.

This is a lesson the Religious Right learned long ago. Its advocates are skilled at flooding lawmakers’ e-mail boxes or melting down phone lines whenever they’re unhappy. Legislators need to know that while the voices of the Religious Right may be loud, that doesn’t mean they speak for everyone.

Local- and state-based activism on behalf of the church-state wall sends that message loud and clear.