When I’m giving a talk, I’ll often begin by asking the question: “How many of you have ever heard of Americans United for Separation of Church and State?”
I ask this question to measure the audience. And, very often, no hands will go up or maybe one will hesitantly rise. I’m always taken aback by this. What I believe to be the most important clause in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the clause from which all our freedoms flow, and the one organization in the country that spends 100% of its time and treasure defending the “wall” that separates church from state and the vast majority of folks have never heard of it? It’s often very hard for me to believe or understand.
But I long ago realized that one of my volunteer jobs is to educate my fellow citizens on the fundamental importance of keeping church and state separate. This is, after all, what makes the United States exceptional.
For the first time in human history, the Founders of this nation created a Constitution that protected the right of every individual American to follow the dictates of their own conscience. This had never happened before. Yes, at the founding this only meant propertied, white males over the age of 35, but, by separating church from state, the Founders set in motion the evolution in thinking that led to the abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and many of the rights and freedoms we take for granted today.
For all their faults that we now can see more clearly with the benefit of hindsight, we need also, with the same benefit of hindsight, to marvel at two things. First, their courage. The Founders and the colonists took on the most powerful army in the world of their time, the English Army. They knew that if they lost the war, they would hang together. They would lose everything.
The second and equally courageous act was, when the opportunity arose, to create a Constitution that separated church from state. They created a document that was completely neutral when it came to issues of religion. Why was this so critical?
Fundamentally, one cannot be truly free, one cannot follow the dictates of their own conscience, nor can a true democracy exist if a state religion exists. It was no coincidence that the Founders began the Bill of Rights by separating church from state and state from church. Only the most hardened religious ideologue could miss the significance of what the Founders did. As long as church and state were tied together, all of the other freedoms, especially the freedoms of expression or speech or the press, would certainly be hampered if non-existent.
The Founders could not have been clearer in their intent. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights mention religion only twice and in both cases it’s about what cannot be done. The first is what has become known at the “No Religious Test Clause.” Article VI, Clause 3, “. . .; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
The second is the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded in 1947 by a broad coalition of religious, educational and civic leaders. At that time, proposals were pending in the U.S. Congress to extend government aid to private religious schools. Many Americans opposed this idea, insisting that government support for religious education would violate church-state separation. The decision was made to form a national organization to promote this point of view and defend the separation principle.
AU’s leaders wanted a group with a nationwide focus that would be active on several fronts. The organization worked to educate members of Congress, as well as state and local lawmakers, about the importance of maintaining church-state separation. At the same time, state and local chapters of Americans United were formed, and the organization began publishing Church & State magazine and other materials in support of church-state separation to educate members of the general public. These activities continue today and form the core of AU’s mission.
The San Antonio Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State formed on April 23, 2007. At the Chapter level, everyone is a volunteer. Each one of us believes deeply in this incredible ‘gift’ the Founders bequeathed to us. We see the threat of the radical religious right as a threat to the Constitution and what it means to be an American. For all our problems, the greatest threat to our freedoms is theocracy. And we need to remain vigilant.
Religious liberty. Freedom of conscience.
The right to believe – or not believe – whatever you want about religion.
The right to share these beliefs with others and pass them on to your children.
The right to contribute your hard-earned money only to the religious institutions of your choice – if any.
The right to live your life as you see fit without interference from aggressive religious groups who want to impose their doctrines on you with the help of the government.
These ideas are all part of what makes America special. Enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution, they are central to our identity as a free people. Without freedom of religion, we wouldn’t be the nation that we are. At Americans United, we believe these freedoms rest on the wall of separation between church and state. A high and firm barrier between the institutions of religion and government serves as a sturdy platform for those freedoms.
On May 17, from 7-8:30 pm, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, will be in town to give a talk on Separation Anxiety: The Future of Church/State Separation. You are invited and the event is free, but there is limited space available. Call 210-732-6564 for more information and to save a seat.
Top image: Timber Williams holds up a religious brochure titled ‘Wake Up America’ during the 2016 National Day of Prayer ceremony at City Hall in San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.