Americans United celebrates 70 years of defending religious freedom

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WASHINGTON — The national nonprofit organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State celebrated 70 years of defending religious freedom in the U.S. A reception was held Dec. 2 at the the National Geographic Society building. The gala honored both the organization and the contributions of executive director Rev. Barry W. Lynn, who is now retiring after 25 years of service.

Attending that event as a member of the honoree committee was Circle Sanctuary’s Rev. Selena Fox, who has spent her own career fighting for religious equality. More specifically, she has been speaking out on behalf of Pagan religions within these realms. Over the years, Fox has worked closely with Americans United.

“I am thankful for the support of Barry Lynn and Americans United for Separation of Church and State in various Pagan civil rights and religious freedom that Lady Liberty League has worked on over the years,” Fox told The Wild Hunt.

Also among the 400 in attendance was Washington D.C.-based Pagan Caroline Kenner and Circle Sanctuary’s Dr. Dennis Carpenter.

AU 70th gala [S. Fox].

Americans United was founded in 1947 by a broad group of community leaders who were opposed to a congressional proposal to extend government aid to private religious schools. This was at the dawn of the McCarthy era, and a period that saw religious rhetoric increasingly seeping into government entities.

By 1954, the Knights of Columbus had successfully lobbied to have “under God” added to the Pledge of Allegiance in order to help combat “godless communism.” In 1956, Congress made “In God We Trust” mandatory on all American money, and it was in 1952 that the National Day of Prayer was adopted; one year later the National Prayer Breakfast began.

In a Smithsonian Magazine article titled “History of the National Prayer Breakfast,” journalist Diane Winston writes, “Soon after his election in 1952, Eisenhower told [famed Southern Baptist minister and evangelist Billy Graham] that the country needed a spiritual renewal. For Eisenhower, faith, patriotism and free enterprise were the fundamentals of a strong nation. But of the three, faith came first.”

With those historical points in mind, it is not surprising that AU was founded within that climate. From the beginning, as the AU website details, “the organization worked to educate members of Congress, as well as state and local lawmakers, about the importance of maintaining church-state separation.”

As is further explained on the site, “Americans United believes that all Americans have the constitutional right to practice the religion of their choice (or refrain from taking part in religion) as individual conscience dictates. The government must remain neutral on religious questions.”

Americans United continued to grow over the decades, expanding nationally with state and local chapters around the country.

Although 1950s political conservatism with its religious components eventually waned, the need to defend religious freedom did not. For example, as stated on the AU site, prayer in school became a national issue by the 1960s.

“In 1962 and 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down landmark rulings striking down government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools.”

Nearly two decades later, the “religious right,” which first arose as a strong force on the political scene in the 1970s with Jerry Fallwell’s Moral Majority, posed new challenges for the AU.

As is recalled by organization members, [the religious right] “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.”

Beginning in the 1980s, Pagans, along with humanists and atheists, began to join AU’s ranks of supporters, and since that point, the organization has taken up the cause for Pagan religious rights, working closely with Circle Sanctuary’s Lady Liberty League.

Circle’s Fox said that she herself has worked closely with the organization, and more specifically with Lynn, over the years. AU’s defense of religious freedom does not end with majority religions. Whether a situation involves Pagans or Heathens or polytheists, AU’s work has always remained inclusive.

During Thursday’s gala celebration, Lynn gave a speech reflecting on his past work. As Fox notes, “During his remarks, [Lynn] talked about his years of service and mentioned some of the notable cases he and AU worked — among those mentioned was the veterans pentacle quest.”

The June 2007 issue of Church & State, AU’s magazine, proudly boasted the success of the pentacle quest.

In the 2007 article celebrating the effort, Lynn was quoted as saying, “This settlement has forced the Bush administration into acknowledging that there are no second-class religions in America, including among our nation’s veterans. It is a proud day for religious freedom in the United States.”

However, the writer went on to muse, “Why was it necessary to file this case at all? Why didn’t the government realize right away its position was indefensible and give the Wiccans what they wanted?”

AU has been involved in, sponsored, or followed other legal situations involving Pagans, including Simpson v. Chesterfield County and the famous town of Greece v. Galloway that eventually ended up at the Supreme Court of the United States.

The organization’s mission and inclusivity have not wavered over the years.  Its blog demonstrates the organization’s vigilance with regard to defending religious freedom, and supporting the separation of church and state.

Today’s political climate has offered new challenges to AU’s staff and leadership. In a letter to supporters, Lynn called the current political situation “unprecedented,” and 2017 “one of our busiest years since [he] came on board over two decades ago.”

But he added, “We face serious challenges to our civil liberties right now, but I am confident … we will prevail in thwarting this administration’s outrageous attempts to curtail our First Amendment freedoms.”

With AU’s long history of inclusiveness, those freedoms of which he speaks and of which AU will defend do include Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists.

As is stated in the organization’s 70th anniversary celebration post:

Americans United celebrates the rich religious and philosophical diversity of the United States and seeks a nation where all people may peacefully pursue the truth as their consciences dictate.

[Note: For those interested in watching the gala, it was recorded and available to stream.]