Americans United at 50: Celebrating the Past, Shaping the Future

Article excerpt

When Americans United was formed Nov. 20, 1947, its founders adopted a Manifesto to outline the new group's agenda and reveal its governing philosophy. That document celebrated Thomas Jefferson's famous "wall of separation between church and state" and vowed to defend it.

Americans United, the Manifesto declared, "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."

To achieve this overarching goal, AU's founders listed several immediate objectives. The first was simple: "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."

The second objective was straightforward: "To resist every attempt by law or the administration of law further to widen the breach in the wall of separation."

For 50 years, Americans United has labored to defend Mr. Jefferson's protective barrier and to fulfill these objectives. The battles have often been fierce and the rhetoric has sometimes been intemperate. But the cause has always been just and the aim noble.

We have fought wherever we were needed - in the arena of public opinion, in Congress and the state legislatures, at the Supreme Court, in state referenda and in local school districts and communities across the land. Wherever church-state separation was at risk, we raised the flag of individual freedom.

The issues were many. The list included religiously inspired censorship of books and movies, sectarian efforts to curtail reproductive freedom and governmental interference with the free exercise of religion, especially for religious minorities. Throughout all five decades, we also faced two central and abiding concerns: the right to maintain the integrity and religious neutrality of the public school system and the battle to protect Americans from taxation for religious schools and ministries.

Our bottom line has always been simple: all Americans have the absolute right to follow their own consciences when it comes to matters of faith. We, not the government, must freely decide which houses of worship we will frequent and support (if any).

Our task is not yet done, of course. Although Americans United and our allies have won battle after battle, the conflict today looms larger than at any time in our organization's history.

The Roman Catholic bishops still seek to finance their parochial schools with tax dollars, as they did in 1947. …