The year was 1948, and the people of Dixon, N.M., were in need of some help.
Public schools in this remote rural hamlet had been handed over to a religious group--in this case, an order of Catholic nuns in full clerical garb--who were teaching children in a former parochial school festooned with sectarian symbols.
The nuns insisted that their instruction was non-sectarian, but some parents said it was impossible for youngsters to receive a secular education in such a religious setting. The two sides remained at loggerheads.
Thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., a new organization had formed a year earlier to defend the separation of church and state and was looking for a case that could put it on the map. The organization provided financial support to the Dixon parents, lined up a volunteer attorney to assist and publicized the issue, helping to secure a ruling from the New Mexico Supreme Court that the arrangement was unconstitutional.
That organization, then known as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, had just helped win an important court victory against what were then known as "captive schools."
The practice of allowing religious groups to run-'fiublic schools had been common in some rural areas, but it quickly ended in light of the Dixon ruling. The victory was so complete that today, many Americans aren't even aware that "captive schools" once existed.
The incident was an early win for the organization that later became Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It wouldn't be the last one.
Americans United celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. As such, it's time to glance back on a storied history while looking ahead to a promising future.
The anniversary comes at a time of change for Americans United. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, who has served as AU's executive director since 1992, announced in March that he will retire at the end of the year. (See "Starting A New Chapter," April 2017 Church & State.)
Lynn will be honored at a gala event in Washington, D.C., in November, a celebration that will also mark AU's seven decades. (For information on how to attend this event, see the ad on the back of this issue of Church & State.)
The origins of Americans United reach back to a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued oil Feb. 10, 1947. On the surface, the case, Everson v. Board of Education, locked to be pretty straightforward: It dealt with the issue of government aid to religious schools. The state of New Jersey had a law that reimbursed parents for money they spent busing their children to private (mostly religious) schools. The practice was challenged, but the court ruled 5-4 it was not a violation of the First Amendment.
Although the high court upheld the aid, it also took pains to speak eloquently about the importance of church-state separation.
Observed Justice Hugo Black, "The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State.'"
To many observers, Everson was a curious ruling. A court majority spoke about the importance of church-state separation--but it also seemed to violate that principle by extending public support to religious schools. (The court majority justified its ruling by calling it a matter of public safety.)
Later that year, a coalition of leaders from religious and educational communities met in Chicago to decide how to respond to the ruling. Already lobbyists for some religious groups were pressing for more forms of tax aid in light of Everson, and members of the coalition wanted to make sure that door remained tightly shut.
They decided to form a national organization that would educate the American people about the importance of church-state separation and advocate for that principle in courts, state legislatures and Congress. The result was Americans United for Separation of Church and State. (Because the organization during its founding drew heavily from Protestant churches, its original...