Americans United (AU) is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization whose mission is to defend the first clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” AU interprets this to mean that “religion and government must stay separate for the benefit of both,” a meaning that bears little resemblance to the actual wording of the First Amendment.
Viewing the U.S. as a nation in danger of being taken over by politically conservative theocrats, AU seeks to diminish and/or eliminate conservative religious organizations’ involvement in public policy and political life. Toward this end, AU initiates policy debates, files lawsuits, and organizes protests aimed at discrediting and eliminating the presence of religious symbols and practices in public places. For example, AU has opposed the recitation of prayers at school graduation ceremonies, and has fought to remove displays of the Ten Commandments in public buildings.
As a general principle, the organization protests laws and practices that it believes offer support to religion, but its attention is focused almost entirely on the alleged transgressions of conservative religious groups; liberal and leftist groups can operate without hindrance from Americans United.
“We … oppose efforts by the Religious Right to impose its theological views on the public by governmental action,” says AU. “The Religious Right’s attempt to force all Americans to accept its religious doctrines as law is one of the greatest threats to religious freedom today.” One AU ad likens Christian conservatives in the U.S. to fundamentalist Muslims in Iran.
AU was founded in 1947 under the name Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (POAU); the chief object of its derision at that time was the Catholic Church. Eventually POAU shortened its name — first to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and then to its current name, Americans United.
AU’s founders included members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the American Secular Humanist Association, and the American Ethical Union, along with other leading liberals of the day. They created AU in reaction to a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing, where the Court ruled that a New Jersey law authorizing school boards to reimburse parents for the bus transportation of children attending parochial schools did not violate the Constitution.
AU’s first executive secretary was Joseph Martin Dawson, a Baptist pastor and social activist who opposed federal aid to church hospitals and sectarian instruction in public schools. The organization’s general counsel, Paul Blanshard, penned American Freedom and Catholic Power, a best-selling anti-Catholic screed which claimed that parochial schools threatened to subvert America’s common culture. And its first president, Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, was a past president of Planned Parenthood and chaired the Massachusetts branch of the pro-communist Council of American-Soviet Friendship.
AU worked to educate members of Congress, as well as state and local lawmakers, about the importance of maintaining church-state separation so as to “ensure religious freedom for all Americans” and to “forbi[d] government to actually or effectively favor one religion over another, [or to] favor religion over non-religion and vice-versa.” At the same time, state and local chapters of Americans United were formed, and the organization began publishing Church & State magazine and other materials to persuade members of the general public to join its crusade.
In 1962 and 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court issued landmark rulings striking down government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools. AU defended the rulings.
In 1967 AU sued the Postmaster General for issuing a Madonna and Child postage stamp.
AU states that the 1970s lamentably saw the “rise” of “the Religious Right … as a political force” with an “extreme and intolerant agenda.” In the 1980s, adds AU, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and other allied groups “unleashed a torrent of attacks on church-state separation and assailed the principle in the halls of Congress and the federal courts. They also targeted public schools for ‘takeover’ campaigns, attempting to saturate the curriculum with fundamentalist theology.”
In the 1980s AU opposed “education choice” advocates who demanded tax subsidies for religious education through vouchers, tuition tax credits and other avenues. AU referred to such initiatives as “schemes” of the Religious Right.
Opposition to school vouchers remains a high priority for AU, which declares:
“Americans must be free to contribute only to the religious groups of their choosing. Voucher programs violate this principle by forcing all taxpayers to underwrite religious education. Often, religious schools promote sectarian dogma and take controversial stands on issues such as gay rights, the role of women in society and reproductive freedom. Taxpayers should not be required to subsidize the spread of religious/moral opinions they may strongly disagree with.”
(AU made no mention of the fact that those same taxpayers, by funding teacher’s unions like the National Education Association with their tax dollars, are required, regardless of their preferences, to subsidize such things as sex education, gay and lesbian “sensitivity” programs, busing and other forced integration measures, educational services for illegal aliens, bilingual education, multicultural education, “global warming” curricula, and “peace studies.”)
In 1995, AU — in conjunction with a coalition that included also the NAACP, the National Education Association, People for the American Way, and the National School Boards Association — initiated a seven-year legal battle to defeat a voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio. After the Court ultimately ruled that the Cleveland program was constitutional, AU Executive Director Barry Lynn vowed: “Every time that this issue of vouchers comes up at any state legislature or in the Congress, we’re going to make the argument that this is bad policy and does not help kids.” For Lynn, this was a departure from his previous stance, which held simply that vouchers “violate the separation of church and state.” Now he said he wanted more money allocated to public schools for programs that are “tested, tried, true.”
Lynn has been AU’s Executive Director since 1992. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a former legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.
In the 1990s AU targeted the “radical agenda” of television preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, whose “supporters brazenly demanded an end to public education and the ‘Christianization’ of politics.” In the ensuing years, AU turned its attention also to “the rise of other Religious Right organizations such as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defense Fund.”
AU officially opposes the use of churches for the promotion of political candidates:
“Houses of worship and religious leaders may address political and social issues, but federal tax law bars … [c]hurches, temples and mosques … from outright electioneering. It is not the job of religious leaders to tell people which candidates to vote for or not vote for.”
In AU’s estimation, conservative congregations are the primary offenders who violate the prohibition against electioneering in the sanctuary:
“Every weekend, millions of Americans attend houses of worship to hear sermons, study scripture and participate in other religious activities. If some politicians and Religious Right activists have their way, however, people in the pews might soon be doing other things during services — listening to partisan political speeches, being solicited for campaign contributions and getting instructions about whom to vote for on Election Day.”
AU has worked to revoke the nonprofit status of churches it believes are promoting the campaigns of conservative political candidates. In 1992, for instance, the organization told the IRS about one New York church that had run full-page ads in USA Today and the Washington Times soliciting tax-deductible contributions to help defeat then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton. The IRS investigated the matter, and it revoked the church’s tax-exempt status. Said Barry Lynn: “This decision is a major blow to TV preacher Pat Robertson and other Religious Right leaders who have tried to politicize churches. From now on, houses of worship that consider risking their tax exemption to get involved in electioneering had better realize that it’s a gamble they’re likely to lose.”
Similarly, AU has condemned the Christian Coalition “Voter’s Guides” that are distributed to churches during election seasons. In an October 2001 letter addressed to nearly 300,000 houses of worship nationwide, Barry Lynn warned churches that they “should be extremely wary of distributing voter guides” lest they lose their tax-exempt status like the aforementioned New York church.
AU responds very differently, however, when restrictions against church electioneering are violated by leftists. For instance, the organization chose not to file a complaint with the IRS after presidential candidate Barack Obama had given a speech at the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) 2007 national convention. In fact, when the IRS eventually announced that it would be investigating the UCC, Americans United protested the decision. “We saw no evidence of UCC officials seeking to appear to endorse his candidacy,” said Barry Lynn.
Nor did AU complain that candidate Obama had spoken to congregants at Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC) in Chicago, or that TUCC pastor Jeremiah Wright had aggressively supported Obama’s candidacy from the pulpit.
AU opposes government spending for social programs (“faith-based initiatives”) that are established or administered by religious groups. Thus the organization rejected a 2002 legislative proposal titled the “CARE Act of 2002” (which was agreed to by the White House and bipartisan leadership in the Senate) whereby the government would offer some support to faith-based groups whose mission is to help poor people access welfare benefits, job training, emergency shelter, food, clothing, and other basic necessities. AU said the bill was unconstitutional because it gave “special treatment to religious groups.”
AU also seeks to apply non-discrimination laws to currently-exempt religious organizations; these laws would require such groups to hire employees not of their faith or living in a manner entirely contrary to their doctrine. “If a religious group receives public funds,” says Barry Lynn, “they should display an American flag, not a crucifix.” AU elaborates:
“Americans in need of social services … should be able to get the help they need without being pressured to take part in religious activities. ‘Faith-based’ initiatives, which propose turning the provision of social services over to religious groups, threaten individual rights and could lead to taxpayer support of religious ministries. In those cases where religious groups want to take tax aid to provide relief, they should first agree to run secular programs and drop all forms of religiously based discrimination from their hiring policies.”
As part of its “Defund the Right” campaign, AU has urged the IRS to require that churches and church-affiliate nonprofits pay property taxes and/or income taxes.
AU’s Defending the Courts program seeks to influence the process by which judges are named to the federal courts:
“Courts are especially important in protecting religious minorities from politically powerful religious majorities. In order to protect this sacred liberty, however, judges and justices must respect church-state separation. AU works to make sure judicial nominees will uphold this principle before they are appointed to the bench.”
In June 2006, AU won a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Iowa Corrections Department’s support for Charles Colson’s InnerChange, a prison program that trains inmates in evangelical Christianity. Said AU:
“The InnerChange program is saturated with evangelical Christianity…. Members of non-evangelical and non-Christian faiths simply do not feel welcome in this program…. We support the right of inmates to have access to worship and spiritual counseling. We believe, however, that such programs must not be sponsored by the government.”
AU opposes any initiative, such as the so-called “marriage amendment,” that would define marriage strictly as a union between one man and one woman and would not recognize homosexual unions. Says AU:
“Opponents of church-state separation, led by the Religious Right, extol the ‘traditional’ family of a married couple with children. While many American families fit this mold, others do not…. The government must not deny adoption, child custody and other fundamental rights to families labeled ‘non-traditional’ because of religious bias or narrow interpretations of holy books held by certain religious believers.”
AU identifies itself as a non-sectarian and non-partisan organization that “refrain[s] from making any statements supporting or opposing any candidate or party, including publishing voter guides about candidate stances on church-state issues.”
Based on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, the AU staff consists of more than 40 employees. The organization has more than 75,000 members distributed across all 50 states. It is funded by donations from members and others who support its objectives, and by grants from such entities as the Deer Creek Foundation, the Esther A. & Joseph Klingenstein Fund, and the Foundation for the Carolinas. AU receives no government funding.