There are few subjects within the individual rights spectrum that offer as many challenges as the First Amendment’s religion clauses. The mix of ideology, morality, and freedom of conscience, combined with the inherent tension between the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, makes religious liberty one of the most controversial and combustible of our individual freedoms. This backdrop makes all the more remarkable the enduring, consistent, and distinguished advocacy in this field by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, this month’s human rights hero.
For more than sixty-five years, Americans United has taken on the toughest issues in the area of religious freedom: defending both an individual’s right to practice his or her religion and the right to abstain from the practice of religion; countering the politicization of religion and belief; and never shying from the battle against those who have sought to chip away at what Thomas Jefferson so famously identified as the wall of separation between church and state.
As a legal advocate, the organization has been on the front lines of the religious freedom wars, playing a critical role as a vigorous advocate in many of the leading religious freedom cases in state and federal courts across the nation. From its earliest years, when it responded to unconstitutional government funding for parochial education, the organization has taken on efforts to counter the imposition of prayer in public schools, the teaching of creationism (and the more recent and subtle version known as “intelligent design”), and the censorship of textbooks, and it has successfully countered government-funded vouchers for private schools.
Today, Americans United’s docket includes cases ranging from efforts to prevent public schools from holding commencements in churches, to ensuring that government bodies do not include prayers in public meetings, to opposition to public funding for activities endorsing religion, such as the state-funded repair of a giant cross in Illinois. When it comes to the principles and precedents of church-state litigation, no case or issue related to the protection of religious liberty is too minor for the organization’s focus and advocacy.
But Americans United’s efforts go beyond the courtroom. The legislative arm of the organization plays an important role in influencing public policy at the federal, state, and local levels, providing knowledgeable testimony and other resources to legislators across the nation on key issues implicating religious freedom. To this end, Americans United is engaged on a wide range of questions, from challenges by religious employers to the provision of a federal health care law requiring contraception for employees, to the prospective rule by USAID concerning possible use of federal funds for religious organizations and buildings overseas, to the legitimacy of a proposed state amendment in Oklahoma that would have barred the use of Islamic law in the state.
Complementing its legislative and legal activities is the public education component of Americans United, designed to create a more informed and more active public for defending religious freedom. It is yet another reason why Americans United for Separation of Church and State, through its zealous advocacy on behalf of religious liberty, serves as a model for civil libertarians, religious advocates, and the nation.
Alexander Wohl is a former Supreme Court Judicial fellow and an adjunct professor at American University Law School. His dual biography Father, Son and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy is due out in early 2013 from the University Press of Kansas. Wohl is also a member of the Human Rights editorial board.