Americans United for Separation of Church and State was formed by a coalition of leaders from religious, educational and fraternal communities late in 1947. Last year, the organization celebrated seven decades of activism.
By 1948, AU, fully staffed and headquartered in Washington, D.C., was taking on a host of church-state battles --and people were taking note. A front page article in The New York Times that ran on Jan. 12, 1948, was headlined "New Body Demands Church Separation."
This year, Americans United marks the 70th anniversary of its first full year of work in defense of the church-state wall. As such, it's the perfect time to step back and consider some of the great church-state battles from days gone by. A lot has happened since the late '40s, and it's always going to be a subjective exercise to pluck 10 incidents from a period that long, but here's our modest effort to revisit some of those struggles and highlight the role AU played in them. (They are listed in loose chronological order.)
Issue: Access To Birth Control Comes Under Fire
What Happened: Access to birth control was a major issue when Americans United was founded. Several states (especially in heavily Roman Catholic areas such as New England) had laws on the books that barred distribution of birth control--and information about it--even to married couples.
Doctors were often gagged. If a couple asked for help in limiting the size of their family, physicians in some states were not allowed to suggest anything other than "natural" family planning.
AU used Church & State to educate Americans about what was going on. Early issues of the magazine are full of stories about clerical efforts to limit access to contraceptives. The July 1949 issue, for example, reported on four doctors at a hospital in Greenfield, Mass., who were fired because they would not stop publicly advocating for changing a state law that banned contraceptives.
AU highlighted the severity of some of these laws and the heavy handed clerical interference that kept them on the books. In June of 1953, Church & State reported that legislators in Connecticut had, for the 14th time, killed a bill that would have allowed doctors to give information about birth control to married women whose health would have been endangered by new births. The state's powerful Catholic hierarchy had lobbied against the measure.
In 1965, when the Supreme Court struck down Connecticut's anti-contraception law in Griswold v. Connecticut, AU praised the ruling, noting that its effects "have been positive and prodigious. "
Where We Are Now: Unfortunately, this issue has reared its head again in recent years in a different form. Some for-profit businesses, colleges and nonprofits have insisted that they shouldn't have to include birth control coverage in employee health care plans, despite a provision in the Affordable Care Act that mandates that contraceptive care be included in most cases. The Trump administration is trying to make it easier for nonprofits and universities to drop contraceptive coverage entirely. Americans United and its allies are suing to stop this. (See "Birth Control Battle," December 2017 Church & State.)
Issue: The Supreme Court Rules On Prayer In Public Schools
What Happened: In 1962, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling striking down a New York law that allowed public schools to require students to recite a government-composed prayer every day.
The case, Engel v. Vitale, was widely misunderstood, and some commentators insisted that the high court had removed all religious expression from public schools. In fact, the decision only affected compulsory, school-sponsored prayer programs. Students remained free to pray voluntarily.
In the wake of the decision, AU moved quickly to correct the record. In a statement, the group observed, "We predict that when the current wave of emotion has subsided the Court's decision in Engel v. Vitale will loom as a landmark of religious freedom."
An editorial in Church & State also appealed for calm. "When a group of public officials in New York State made up a prayer for use in the schools, they were establishing a religious exercise and therefore what they did violated the First Amendment of the Constitution which forbids this," it read. "That was what the Court said. Whence, then, this hullabaloo about the triumph of materialism, Communist takeover, comfort to Karl Marx, complete secularism, insult to God and the like? Your guess is as good as ours. "
The following year, when the Supreme Court issued a similar ruling invalidating mandatory Bible reading in public schools in Abington Township v. Schempp, AU again issued statements noting that the decision had merely struck down compulsory religious exercises.
But AU did more than issue statements. It took the lead in opposing several school prayer amendments that were introduced in Congress in the wake of the Engel and Schempp rulings. The issue dragged on for years, but in the end, these amendments were all defeated. (AU's Legal Department also sponsored litigation to buttress the school prayer rulings.)
Where We Are Now: The issue of the proper role of religion in public schools soon became central to AU's work. Through litigation, lobbying and educational efforts, AU works to remind Americans that while public schools may not impose religious worship onto youngsters, students have broad rights to pray, read religious texts and engage in other religious activities as long as these activities...