Watchdog on the wall: the Americans United story.
1947 was an eventful year for both the United States and the world. In post-war America, the economy boomed as returning World War II veterans re-entered the work force, enrolled in college, bought homes and started families.
The U.S. Air Force was born. "Meet the Press" debuted on NBC. Test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in an experimental jet. Elmer's glue and Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil were introduced to consumers. On the other side of the globe, India gained independence from Great Britain.
And in Chicago a group of concerned citizens met on Nov. 20 at the Methodist Temple to discuss ways to increase public support for and understanding of the constitutional principle of church-state separation.
Earlier that year, a group of prominent leaders from various religious, educational, fraternal and public policy groups had held a series of meetings at hotels and churches around Washington, D.C., discussing the need for cooperative efforts to defend church-state separation. At the November meeting, participants hammered out a document outlining their concerns, known simply as A Manifesto. Plans for a national organization were finalized, and officers were elected.
Such was the birth of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
From these humble beginnings, Americans United has risen to become the nation's premier defender of the constitutional separation between religion and government. Through five stormy decades, the organization has worked on a wide range of church-state issues. The cast of characters has changed, and issues have peaked and waned in their importance, but Americans United's mission remains the same: to protect religious and intellectual freedom by defending the separation of church and state.
What was it about America in the late 1940s that sparked the birth of Americans United? In some ways, the situation then sounds much like today's, Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church had just announced an aggressive drive to win tax subsidies for their parochial school system. Congress and state legislatures were feeling the heat.
Congress was, for the first time, considering a massive appropriations bill for public education. But the measure was held up by demands from parochial school advocates that religious institutions share in its largess.
At the same time, the issue of an official U.S. ambassador to the Vatican sparked controversy. President Harry Truman had proposed the relationship, despite complaints from religious leaders that it amounted to giving one church a special relationship with the U.S. government.
That same year, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on church-state relations: Everson v. Board of Education. Handed down on Feb. 10, 1947, Everson was a curious decision. In it, a unanimous court spoke approvingly and in ringing language of the need for strict separation between the institutions of government and faith, but then a five-justice majority went on to approve a taxpayer-funded system of bus transportation for religious schools in New Jersey.
In short, church-state issues and the controversy they usually generate were much in the news in 1947, especially the question of government support for sectarian schools. With the Supreme Court showing an increasing willingness to take up the question, AU's founders decided the time was right for a national organization dedicated to defending church-state separation.
The founders were a diverse lot. They included Edwin McNeill Poteat, president of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School (who served as AU's first president); Louie D. Newton, president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Joseph M. Dawson, executive secretary of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; Elmer E. Rogers of the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masons; John A. Mackay, president of Princeton Theological Seminary; the Rev. G. Bromley Oxnam, Methodist bishop; Carl E. Lundquist of the Lutheran Council; William A. Scarlett, Episcopal bishop; Charl Ormond Williams of the National Education Association; Frank H. Yost of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Clyde W. Taylor, secretary of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Observed long-time Church & State editor C. Stanley Lowell in his book Embattled Wall, "The founders were a curious combination of liberals and fundamentalists, of Council of Churches and national and fraternal leaders. Clergymen were prominent in the deliberations. It was such a combination as might not have desired to be caught together under any possible set of circumstances. But to defend separation of church and state they did come together."
From the beginning, the plan called for an aggressive, proactive organization that would do more than simply respond to attacks on the separation principle. AU's leaders, for example, were heartened to see the affirmation of separationist principles in Everson, but they also feared that the court had nonetheless created a crack in the wall of separation between church and state. That crack, they knew, could be picked at until it became a chasm. They were determined to keep "the wall" high and firm.
The post-Everson climate not only sparked the creation of Americans United, it also urged other groups, notably the American Jewish Congress, to jump into the fray and defend church-state separation more aggressively. AJC attorney Leo Pfeffer worked closely with Americans United for many years.
"I think the long-run significance of Everson is less doctrinal than it is political," says Gregg Ivers, professor of government at American University, member of Americans United's National Advisory Council and author of several books on church-state relations. "It altered the environment of church-state confrontation. It took it out of the legislative process and put it into the courts. Once it did that, the environment was never the same. Everson created new organizations, like Americans United, and led other organizations to get more involved."
The founders of Americans United were clearly alarmed at the climate. The Manifesto declares boldly, "Congress and all State legislatures, and all executive and judiciary agencies of government must be warned that they are playing with fire when they play into the hands of any church which seeks, at any point, however marginal, to breach the wall that sharply separates church and state in this country. The principle of their separation is so firmly established in a long tradition as well as in the Constitution that any tampering with it will tend to light the fires of intolerance and fanaticism which our system of government is designed to prevent." (See more excerpts from the Manifesto on page 11.)
The Manifesto listed eight "immediate objectives" that the organization would pursue. Topping the list was a campaign of public education to "enlighten and mobilize public opinion in support of religious liberty as this monumental principle of democracy has been embodied and implemented in the Constitution by the separation of church and state."
Other objectives included opposing laws that would give tax money to religious institutions, including religious schools; opposing "sectarian domination" of the public school system and fighting U.S.-Vatican diplomatic ties.
Although formed in 1947, Americans United did not begin soliciting members in earnest until the following year. On Jan. 12, 1948, The New York Times announced the formation of Americans United in a front-page article headliner, "New Body Demands Church Separation," which included generous excerpts from the Manifesto. Seventeen days later, Americans United was officially incorporated in Washington, D.C.
At that time, the organization's full name was "Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State," and it was frequently known by the acronym POAU. The inclusion of "Protestants" in the title was not without controversy. The Manifesto explains that the word found its way into the name "only because the churches of that faith represent by far the largest body of citizens whose religious liberty is jeopardized" by efforts to do away with church-state separation.
The document goes on, however, to promise a movement that will "embrace all Americans, whatever their faith may be." (By the mid 1960s, the organization was usually referred to simply as "Americans United." The name was changed officially to Americans United for Separation of Church and State on April 1, 1972.)
The first Americans United National Advisory Council (NAC) reflected the religious and philosophical diversity that the group's founders intended. Some 40 denominational leaders were listed, representing the Unitarians, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Christian Scientists, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans and other faith communities.
But many educators stood with AU too. Tulane University President Rufus Harris, Macalester College President Charles Turck and Baylor University President W.R. White were among the NAC, as were the NEA's Howard Dawson and African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune. Writers and scholars Lewis Mumford, Rex Stout, Frank Mead, Guy Emery Shipler, V.T. Thayer, Harry Overstreet and Alfred McClung Lee also served on the advisory body.
By July of 1948, the organization had its first executive director, Dr. Glenn L. Archer, dean of Washburn University Law School in Topeka and a Republican Party activist in Kansas. Archer, a young, dynamic leader with a reputation for spellbinding oratory, forfeited a promising career in politics - he was being groomed to run for governor of Kansas or the U.S. Senate - to run AU from cramped offices in Washington.
Two months earlier, the first issue of AU's monthly publication, then called Church And State Newsletter, rolled off the presses. The first issue, typewritten and simply mimeographed, was only six pages long. The magazine continued to grow and change in appearance, and in September of 1952 was renamed Church & State.
Americans United grew quickly. Although the organization's critics predicted it would collapse within one year, just the opposite occurred; the group flourished. On Jan. 27, 1949, Archer addressed a mass rally at Constitution Hall.
By March of 1949, enough money had been raised to buy Americans United its own home in the nation's capital - a three-story brownstone near a row of embassies at 1633 Massachusetts Avenue. (In December of 1969 AU relocated to the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md., where it stayed until it moved back to Washington in September of 1994.)
Americans United moved forward on several fronts. The office churned out pro-separation pamphlets, brochures and issue papers that were distributed nationwide. Members began forming local chapters in states and communities around the country. AU representatives visited members of Congress and state legislators. Rallies were held in churches, fraternal halls and public auditoriums.
The group also launched a legal program. AU attorneys scored an early victory in March of 1949 when a state judge struck down Catholic control of a public school in Dixon, N.M. At the time, it was not uncommon in rural areas for religious groups to run public schools and suffuse them with their own particular dogma. Angry parents who believed their rights were being violated contacted Americans United, and a lawsuit was quickly filed. The judge, E. Turner Hensley, declared the arrangement unconstitutional, and the New Mexico Supreme Court eventually upheld his decision. It was the first of several successful Americans United lawsuits against what became known as "captive schools."
Americans United continued its opposition to tax funding for religious schools through the 1950s and took on other issues as well. Religiously based censorship was common in some parts of the country at the time, and Americans United boldly challenged the right of religious groups to determine what people could read. Prolific AU writer/researcher Paul Blanshard penned a book about the topic, The Right To Read, published in 1955.
During the McCarthy era, Americans United's enemies attacked the organization as "soft on Communism" or even as a "red front." Archer and the AU staff largely ignored such attacks, seeing them for the desperation ploys that they were. In his public speeches, which often drew thousands, Archer, an active Methodist layman who had once considered becoming a missionary, forcefully described church-state separation as a uniquely American principle and explained how in defending it, AU stood up for true Americanism.
The 1960s got under way with a bang: In 1962 and '63 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings declaring government-sponsored religious worship in public schools unconstitutional. The result was an uproar. The decisions were widely misunderstood, and the Supreme Court was accused of "kicking God out of the schools."
Americans United analyzed the decisions and issued statements appealing for calm. In his 1982 autobiography The Dream Lives On, Archer reflected on the fallout from the school prayer rulings. "This ruckus dismayed me, for it showed the depth to which human beings could sink when they do not understand genuine religion and when they think a few formal prayers said by public school pupils each morning can take the place of genuine internal religion," he wrote. "Such ritualistic formality can never replace genuine religion."
Nevertheless, the school prayer decisions sparked outcry in Congress and the beginning of repeated efforts to amend the Constitution to reintroduce school-sponsored worship. The issue would flare up time and again over the next 35 years, occupying much of Americans United's time. It remains a serious threat to church-state separation today.
Although efforts to pass a school prayer amendment in the 1960s failed, the issue emerged again in 1971 with the introduction of a new proposal by Rep. Chalmers Wylie (R-Ohio). The amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives after a massive mobilization by Americans United and its allies.
Taxpayer funding of parochial schools remained a serious threat during the '70s. However, advocates of tax aid to religious schools suffered a setback in 1971, when the Supreme Court handed down an important parochial school aid case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, striking down various forms of tax aid to religious schools. Americans United was among several organizations that sponsored the litigation.
The Lemon victory capped a period of extraordinary success in the courtroom for Americans United. In his book, The Wall of Separation: The Constitutional Politics of Church and State, University of Minnesota scholar Frank J. Sourauf analyzed 67 decisions by federal courts and concluded that Americans United, the ACLU and the American Jewish Congress were the three most influential organizations shaping church-state law in the 1951-1971 period.
Americans United, however, could hardly rest on its laurels. Threats remained as the decade came to a close. Stung by courtroom defeats, parochial school aid advocates shifted strategy and began pitching their idea as aid to parents and students, not parochial schools. Thus the concepts of "education vouchers" and "parental choice" moved toward center stage in the national dialogue.
The late '70s also saw the rise of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other leaders associated with the modern Religious Right. Throughout much of the 20th Century, fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants had stayed out of politics, and some had even supported church-state separation, at least in principle. But all that changed dramatically. Spurred by rightwing political activists, Falwell and other like-minded preachers and religious broadcasters leaped into national politics and became harsh critics of separation.
In retrospect, it has become obvious that Falwell's Moral Majority was often more bluster than substance, but he laid the groundwork for more sophisticated, grassroots-oriented organizations to come like Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.
As the 1980s progressed, it became clear that the Religious Right's presence on the national political scene was not a passing fad. Various organizations attacked church-state separation on virtually every front. They demanded school-sanctioned worship in public schools, advocated the teaching of creationism in science classes, sought tax aid for private religious schools, pushed for censorship of books, films and other materials, bashed gay people and tried to ban legal abortion. Fundamentalist churches became centers for partisan political organizing, culminating in Robertson's run for president in 1988.
Robertson formed the Christian Coalition in the wake of his failed bid. The group started small but experienced rapid growth, reaching at least half a million members by the mid 1990s. By this time, Falwell's Moral Majority had collapsed, and Robertson was the undisputed leader of the Religious Right. Americans United began closely monitoring his activities as early as 1982, issuing regular reports in Church & State. (After one 1985 story detailing Robertson's anti-separation record, the TV preacher threatened to file a libel suit. AU refused to back down, and the lawsuit never materialized.)
The '80s and '90s saw Americans United active on numerous fronts. The Senate rejected President Ronald Reagan's tuition tax credit proposal by a 59-38 vote in November of 1983. But parochial school aid advocates kept up the pressure and began pressing legislation in the states and trying to pass plans through state referenda - all of which failed. But by the mid '90s two states, Ohio and Wisconsin, had passed "experimental" voucher bills, which Americans United and other groups immediately challenged in court.
School prayer remained an issue. Americans United helped defeat President Reagan's school prayer amendment, which was rejected by the Senate in 1984. Americans United also dealt with a host of related religion-in-public schools issues and filed important briefs before the Supreme Court in several key religion-in-public-school cases.
In the wake of a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that restricted religious freedom fights, Americans United joined a broad coalition of organizations in drafting and helping to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993 but declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last June.
Aside from the rise of the Religious Right, perhaps the most troubling development about the 1980s and '90s was the Supreme Court's drill away from church-state separation. Several justices appointed during the tenures of Presidents Reagan and George Bush were hostile to the principle. With the court's loyalty to Jefferson's wall wavering, Americans United was forced to rely on other strategies to defend separation of church and state.
Today, under the leadership of Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, Americans United is more active than ever. Headquartered in the heart of Washington on the aptly named Jefferson Place, AU maintains an effective presence in the nation's capital and in state legislatures through its Legislative Department, while the Chapters and Faith Groups Department organizes activists at the grassroots through local chapters and reaches out to sympathetic houses of worship.
Through its legal program, Americans United stands up for the wall of separation in state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. AU's Communications Department produces Church & State as well as a variety of pamphlets and other informational publications on church-state issues. The department also works with news reporters to make sure the media cover church-state issues fully and in an even-handed manner.
Americans United's Development Department ensures that the organization remains on sound financial footing and researches new avenues of support for the group. In addition, AU sponsors a national conference on church and state every year.
Lynn notes that every week Americans United receives dozens of requests for information or assistance with church-state matters. The organization's visibility in the national media is at an all-time high, and AU is considered the leading national organization that opposes the agenda of the Religious Right.
"These are exciting times for Americans United," Lynn said. "During the rest of this year and 1998, we will pause momentarily to reflect on some of our accomplishments over the past five decades, but we will always keep our eyes on the future and Americans United's next 50 years."
Continued Lynn, "Our nation will face many challenges as we approach the 21 st century. The wall of separation between church and state will continue to face assorted salvos and attacks. And Americans United will be there to meet each and every one of them. We're in this battle for the long haul."
RELATED ARTICLE: The Americans United Manifesto
The Americans United Manifesto was drafted to serve as the starting point for the organization's life and work. Drafted primarily by Christian Century editor Charles Clayton Morrison, the document was adopted Nov. 20, 1947, by the founders of Americans United. The following are excerpts from the Manifesto:
The officers and the widely representative National Advisory Council of this organization desire to speak frankly and clearly to the American people concerning the purpose for which this undertaking has been launched. Its single and only purpose is to assure the maintenance of the American principle of separation of church and state upon which the Federal Constitution guarantees religious liberty to all the people and all churches of this Republic.... Americans United has been called into existence because this principle has been and is being violated, and threatened with further violation, in certain areas and by certain acts of both government and church. The plain meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids Congress to make any law "respecting an establishment of religion," has been obscured by specious propaganda tending to confuse the public mind as to the clear-cut line of separation which this Amendment draws between church and state. We shall endeavor (1) to revive in the public mind a clear understanding of the constitutional basis upon which religious liberty has been guaranteed, (2) to redress the specific violations which have recently come into force, and (3) to resist further encroachments upon this constitutional principle.
...Americans United does not concern itself with the religious teaching, the forms of worship, or the ecclesiastical organization of the many churches in our country. It is no part of our purpose to propagandize the Protestant faith or any other, nor to criticize or oppose the teaching or internal practices of the Roman Catholic Church or any other. We have no connection or sympathy with any movement that is tinged with religious fanaticism. Our motivation arises solely from our patriotic and religious concern for the maintenance of the separation of church and state under the American form of government.
Nevertheless, the existing situation cannot be dealt with save by frankly taking account of the specific sources from which violations of the First Amendment originate. But our undertaking is not primarily directed toward these sources, but toward those agencies of government - local, State and Federal - which weakly yield to their demands. Congress and all State legislatures, and all executive and judiciary agencies of government must be warned that they are playing with fire when they play into the hands of any church which seeks at any point, however marginal, to breach the wall that sharply separates church and state in this country. The principle of their separation is so firmly established in a long tradition as well as in the Constitution that any tampering with it will tend to light the fires of intolerance and fanaticism which our system of government is designed to prevent.
Our operations, therefore, are not inspired by any religious differences, but by a common conviction concerning the religious liberty of all faiths. The internal differences which distinguish one church from another have no place on the political level. Their consideration belongs in the open forum which the Constitution has provided for freedom of conscience and the free exchange of opinion. Here all the churches have liberty to worship as they desire, to propagate their own faith, and to maintain such organizations for this purpose as they deem expedient. In the open forum of religious liberty they may meet one another in cooperation or in controversy.
...Americans United has come into existence to defend this open forum of religious liberty against its vitiation by law or the administration of law. The state is forbidden to invade this area. It may not by law or the administration of law accord to any church a status which gives it a special advantage in the wide domain of religious freedom. This is the plain meaning of the First Amendment, which forbids Congress to make any law "respecting an establishment of religion" - that is, pertaining to, or leading toward, such an establishment.
The churches on whose behalf we speak ask nothing for themselves in the exercise of their constitutional freedom which they do not willingly grant to and demand for all other churches. They are content to take their place in the open forum of our free society and to flourish or perish by the inherent strength or weakness of their faith. This is cultural and spiritual democracy. For the state to connive with a church which seeks a position of advantage in the forum of religious liberty by creating any interlocking relation between that church and itself is to deny or to curtail the religious liberty of all other churches and to vitiate democracy.
The Federal Supreme Court in two decisions has confirmed State legislation which sanctions the use of public school funds to provide free textbooks for parochial schools (1930) and to transport pupils to such schools (1947). The four dissenting justices in the bus-transportation case solemnly warned the nation that these two breaches in the wall separating church and state are only the beginning. "That a third and a fourth breach, and still others, will be attempted, we may be sure," say the dissenting justices.
...Americans United is determined to assert its full strength to the end that there shall be no more breaches in this wall, that the breaches already made shall be repaired, and that the complete separation of church and state in an undivided state-supported educational system shall be maintained.
...Americans United respectfully demands that Congress shall not...abdicate its responsibility to defend the Constitution, regardless of political pressure on the part of any sectarian interests which would thus subvert it. The effect of state-supported church schools would spell the end of our public school system as it has been established, fostered, and protected for more than a century. To divide state-supported education into sectarian school systems would divide American society itself into hostile sectarian camps, intensify sectarian intolerance, and thrust a religious issue permanently into the political arena from which our Constitution was designed to exclude it. Next to the Constitution itself, our public school system has been our strongest bulwark against the development of religious intolerance in our political life.
...Americans United proposes to carry on a campaign of enlightenment and mobilization of public opinion throughout the nation until the vital issue which has been raised by these violations and the threat of further violations has been decided by the voice of the people.
The Americanism of the people's representatives in the various branches of government must be stiffened against the promptings of sentimentalism or the low dictates of political advantage to resist the aggressive activities of those who would subvert the Constitution to their own sectarian interest.
In this endeavor we count especially upon the participation of...educators throughout the nation, regardless of their religious affiliations, whose noble profession will be stultified by further encroachments upon the public school system or by the complacent acceptance of those already in force. The teaching profession perceives, perhaps more clearly than others, the evil social consequences in the permanent fissioning of American culture which will result from state support of church-controlled education.
...Americans United for Separation of Church and State proposes to acquaint the representatives of government, all the way up from the local community through the States to Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House, with the fact that an overwhelming body of public opinion... is united in a common purpose to achieve the above objectives, and thus to assure the preservation of the cultural and religious democracy bequeathed by the fathers against any act of government "respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
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|Title Annotation:||includes excerpts from the Manifesto; Americans United for Separation of Church and State|
|Publication:||Church & State|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1997|
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