Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become involved in the separation of church and state, personally?
I would say there are two reasons why I got so interested in separation of church and state. One is that as a child, I attend a Catholic school for eight years. We were required to pray three times a day. This was a private school, so they had the right to do that, but I found it off-putting. The prayers took on the air of a by-rote ritual, the sort of thing you did just to get through it. These mandated prayers certainly didn’t feel very spiritual. In ninth grade, I switched to a public school. Of course, there were no mandated prayers there, and I much preferred that situation. I became a very big opponent of coercive, mandated forms of religion and concluded that faith has to be voluntary, or it doesn’t mean anything. This led me to support the separation of church and state.
The second reason is my reading of history. I’ve always enjoyed the study of history, and my reading in this area has made it abundantly clear to me that combinations of religion and government simply do not work. They are bad for both church and state. You end up with one of two things: a nightmarish theocracy, such as we saw with Christianity in the Middle Ages and still see today in some hard-line Muslim nations, or a devitalised state church, which we see in some European countries.
You are the director of communications of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. What tasks and responsibilities come with being the director of communications?
Americans United publishes a monthly magazine of news and analysis of church-state issues called Church & State, which I edit. I write for that magazine and other publications as well. I’m also responsible for AU’s outreach to the media. AU’s Executive Director, Barry W. Lynn, is often quoted in the media and has done a lot of cable news programs, which we coordinate. We try to get the word out to the average American through the media – both traditional and new media – as much as possible. Our website, www.au.org, “Wall of Separation” blog and various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are vitally important outreach tools. We try to reach people in many different ways. Some people really enjoy social media, so we are active there. But I also believe that traditional forms of communication are still important, so I give about eight to ten public speeches per year.
In general, what are the perennial threats to church and state separation in the United States? There are too many to cover in the interview here, but there are more resources on the website.
There are certain issues that just keep popping up. The role of religion in public education is huge; that is a perennial issue in this country, and it includes things like prayer in schools, teaching about religion objectively, creationism, etc. The question of taxpayer support for religion is also big. Here we deal with things like school vouchers and “faith-based” initiatives (AU’s view, of course, is that all religious enterprises should be funded with private dollars, never tax money). A third issue deals with religion’s role in the public square. By this I mean the battles over Ten Commandments displays at courthouses and disputes over nativity scenes on government property in December. AU has been involved in many of those cases, arguing that sectarian symbols are fine for houses of worship, but they don’t belong on government property since the state has an obligation to represent us all.
I would single out two more issues: One is the proper role of religion in politics. Religious groups have the right to speak out on issues, but under U.S. law they are prohibited from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates. It has been a challenge to get some houses of worship to respect that law. The final issue is the meaning of religious freedom. At Americans United, we believe religious freedom gives you the right to worship, or not, as you see fit. But it gives you no right to harm others or take away their rights. Lately, we’ve been hearing arguments that owners of businesses or even government employees, such as county clerks, should not have to serve certain people (mainly members of the LGBTQ community) if those people somehow “offend” the religious beliefs of the business owner or the government employee. AU believes this is a perversion of the concept of religious freedom, and we have an entire project, Protect Thy Neighbor, that works to counter it.
How does Americans United for Separation of Church and State work to keep these boundaries fixed rather than fluid?
We do this in several ways. Members of our Legal Department work in and out of court to protect separation of church and state. Over the years, we’ve won several notable courtroom victories. Our Legislative Department works to stop dangerous bills in Congress and in state legislatures. It is always better to block a bad bill if you can rather than have to fight it in court. AU’s Field Department organises people locally and gives them the tools they need to stand up for separation in their towns and states. This is important because lawmakers would rather hear from constituents than a group based in Washington, D.C. We also educate people. We give them information about what church-state separation means and why it is important. This is crucial because Religious Right groups have launched an aggressive campaign to turn the American people away from church-state separation. We must counter that.
What are some of the more egregious cases of violation of church and state separation in American history?
Many public schools sponsored daily prayer and Bible reading until the Supreme Court put a stop to it in 1962 and ’63. Non-Christian students and even some who were Christian but disagreed with the content of the prayers were forced to take part. This was a grotesque violation of the fundamental right of conscience. In a related issue, we had to struggle in this country to win the right to teach evolution in public schools. Some states had laws banning it, and we fought to overturn those. Even today, bills that would promote the teaching of creationism or water-down instruction about evolution surface in state legislatures every year.
There are other examples: Powerful religious groups for many years made the sale of birth control illegal (even for married couples), and religiously based censorship of books, magazines, movies and art exhibits was once common. And of course we know how right-wing religious groups suppressed the rights of the LGBTQ community. We had to fight in the courts and through the culture to change these things, and today there are still forces working to drag us back to the 1950s.
Who are the unexpected allies in the maintenance of secular values in American culture?
The support of the religious community has been absolutely essential. Most U.S. religious leaders understand the need for secular government; they appreciate it, and they help us protect it. Americans United was founded in 1947 largely by religious leaders, so we know how important their voice is. Today, religious and non-religious people work together through Americans United to ensure that freedom for all remains the law of the land. That coalition must be kept intact to keep the church-state wall high and firm.
Is there ever a valid, even sound, justification for temporary freezing of the standard separation of church and state?
I can’t think of any. In fact, when this happens, it usually results in something negative. For example, political leaders may invoke “God and country” rhetoric to pursue certain policy goals that may not be in the best interests of the people. Generally speaking, when I hear political leaders spouting off constantly about religion, I get suspicious. What are they trying to get us to do? I speak here not of sincerely devout leaders but of those cynical people who seek to use appeals to faith as a tool to control others. Remember, sincerely religious people don’t have to wear their faith on their sleeves or wave it around like a flag in a parade – only hypocrites do that.
With the current Trump Administration, does Americans United for Separation of Church and State see new threats to the separation of church and state?
To be blunt, the Trump administration has been a disaster for the separation of church and state. During the campaign, Trump courted right-wing evangelicals, and they turned out for him in record numbers. Now he’s paying them back. Trump has vowed to repeal the federal law that bars non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. He wants to spend $20 billion in taxpayer dollars on a reckless school voucher plan. He believes fundamentalist Christian business owners should have the right to deny services to members of the LGBTQ community. He seems to have a limited understanding of science. No doubt, we’re going to have our hands full for the next four years.
What are the more frequent, daily/weekly/monthly issues dealt with by Americans United for Separation of Church and State?
I’ve mentioned religion in public schools a few times already. That issue really is a constant. Our attorneys strive to resolve matters outside of court, and they receive a steady stream of complaints about violations in this area. It has been more than 50 years since the Supreme Court handed down the school prayer rulings, yet we continue to see these problems. I think most people who work in public education understand that pushing religion isn’t their job, but it only takes a few bad actors to create problems.
What have been the largest activist and educational initiatives provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State? Out of these, what have been honest failures and successes?
I think we’ve done a great job educating people about the historical and legal foundations of church-state separation in America. Some people may not like what our history says, but the information is out there for anyone who wants to objectively examine it. We’ve effectively countered and debunked Religious Right lies about church-state separation.
We’ve also done a very good job, both in and out of court, of defending the religious neutrality of the public education system. I’m very proud of the role AU played in a 2005 lawsuit that removed intelligent design creationism from public schools in Dover, Pa. That decision served as a warning to other schools and has helped put the brakes on similar proposals to teach the Bible as science in our public schools.
Our efforts to educate people about the law prohibiting houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates have been in-depth and persuasive. Polls show that a large majority of Americans agree with us on that issue. We’ve also done important work highlighting the dangers of “faith-based” initiatives and government funding for religion generally. I’m also proud of our work defending the rights of the LGBTQ and non-theistic communities, which has really escalated in recent years.
One area where we’ve lost ground is tax funding for sectarian schools, specifically through voucher plans. We put up a good fight, but the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s voucher plan in 2002. Since then, we’ve not been able to fight voucher programs in federal courts. We’ve had some success fending them off in state courts, but the loss at the federal level was a blow. I should note that we lost ground over that issue mainly due to politics. During the terms of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, some very conservative judges were put on the Supreme Court. They simply did not support church-state separation. You see the result. I always remind people that there is a strong connection between the candidates they support for president and Senate and the type of justices we end up with on the Supreme Court.
How can people get involved with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, even donate to it?
The best thing to do is go to our website, www.au.org. There, people can learn about the work we do, join and donate. At the site, you can also find out if there is a local AU chapter in your area. If local activism is your thing, you’ll want to get plugged into a chapter. And remember, if you join Americans United, you’ll start receiving Church & State magazine. Our members find that to be an interesting and informative resource.
Thank you for your time, Rob.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become involved in the separation of church and state, personally?