The Americans United legislative department protects church-state separation by working on a range of issues at the federal and state level.  On the federal level, AU’s activities range from urging the Obama Administration to revise federal regulations and policies that govern the Faith-Based Initiative to lobbying Congress to oppose private school voucher legislation.  At the same time, AU works in states around the country to oppose legislation that harms religious freedom, including bills that would allow public school-led prayer, private school vouchers, government-sponsored religious displays, and the teaching of creationism in public schools. 

Private School Vouchers and Tuition Tax Credits

Since AU was founded in 1947, it has continued its work to oppose government funding of private religious schools.  Both private school vouchers and tuition tax credits funnel taxpayer money away from public schools and into private and religious schools, violating our country’s commitment to the separation of church and state.  To further our work in this area, AU serves as the co-chair of the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), a coalition of national organizations that support public schools and oppose school vouchers and tuition tax credits. [Read more…]

The Faith-Based Initiative

While in office, President George W. Bush established the “Faith-Based Initiative.”  The Faith-Based Initiative set out rules that govern the partnerships between the government and religiously-affiliated organizations that receive federal grants to provide social services.  These rules were a radical departure from those that had historically applied to such partnerships.  For example, prior to the Faith-Based Initiative, religious organizations could give preference in hiring to employees of the same faith when using their own funds.  The Faith-Based Initiative, however, allows religious groups to take government funds and discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion with those funds.  Such federally-funded discrimination runs contrary to our constitutional principles of religious freedom. [Read more…]

Religion in the Military

Religious freedom is an issue that affects military service members in many different forms, including: accommodations for soldiers’ individual religious traditions, protections for LGB service members from religiously-based discrimination, and safeguards to ensure that those of minority faiths or no faith at all are free from unwarranted proselytization. AU supports military policies that support service members’ free exercise rights, while upholding the separation of church and state. [Read more…]

Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)

AU originally supported the federal RFRA, which Congress passed in 1993 in response to the 1990 Supreme Court case, Employment Division v. Smith.  In that case, the Court announced it would no longer apply the highest level of scrutiny to cases involving the free exercise of religion.   AU and other supporters of RFRA believed the bill would simply restore protections for religious minorities by reinstating the higher pre-Smith standard.  The federal RFRA was meant to be a shield to safeguard religious freedom, not a sword to be used to harm others.  Because people and corporations have been trying to use RFRA in recent years as a way to take away the rights of someone else, however, AU believes RFRA must be fixed. [Read more…]

Religiously-Motivated LGBT Discrimination

RFRA is being distorted by the Religious Right as a means of justifying the denial of civil rights to particular individuals.  They are now arguing that RFRA trumps non-discrimination laws when a person or corporation claims they are acting in the name of religion. This use of RFRA is wrong for both legal and policy reasons.  In light of the recent Hobby Lobby decision, however, it is likely that those wishing to use RFRA as a means of discriminating will be even further emboldened to do so. [Read more…]

Religious Displays

Government-sponsored religious displays introduce controversy on an issue about which many Americans disagree: religion.  America as a nation is extraordinarily religiously diverse. We come from many different religious traditions and some follow no spiritual path at all. The government’s decision to erect a religious display that represents some—but not all—Americans leaves many overlooked and makes many feel unwelcome in their own community.  The government should not place its seal of approval on any religious symbol, emblem, or creed. [Read more…]

Government-Sponsored Prayer

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects an individual’s right to engage in voluntary and non-disruptive prayer, even if that prayer takes place in a public school or on government property.  An individual does not, however, have the right to use the mechanisms of the government to coerce others into participating in that prayer.  Furthermore, AU opposes prayer that is government-sponsored because the government should never endorse religion or force individuals of minority faiths or of no faith to feel coerced into participating in religious activities.  Government-sponsored prayer is divisive and sends a message to those of minority faiths that they are not full members of the community.  Unfortunately, state and federal legislators continue to look for ways to impose government and school-sponsored prayer. [Read more…]

Creationism in Public School Science Classrooms

Many states introduce bills that aim to promote the teaching of creationism or intelligent design and encourage the disparagement of evolution in public school science classrooms.  These efforts continue even though evolution is a widely-accepted standard in the scientific community and is supported by overwhelming evidence.  On the other hand, creationism and intelligent design are not a science, but rather religious doctrine.  Accordingly, the federal courts, including the US Supreme Court, have consistently and repeatedly held that teachers are constitutionally prohibited from teaching creationism and intelligent design in the public school classroom. [Read more…]

Anti-Sharia Legislation

Many state legislatures have introduced bills to enforce “foreign law bans.”  Although these bills may appear innocuous on their face, their real purpose is to stoke anti-Islamic rhetoric and exploit the unfounded fear that Sharia law is taking over US courts.  These bills are inspired by the American Public Policy Alliance, which unashamedly seeks to “protect American citizens’ constitutional rights against the infiltration and incursion of foreign laws and foreign legal doctrines, especially Islamic Shariah Law.”  The Establishment Clause, however, already prevents the Courts from imposing Sharia law in our courts.  In addition, judges are already empowered to ignore any foreign law that would conflict with our laws and public policies. [Read More…]

Church Intervention in Elections

Most houses of worship and other non-profits qualify as 501(c)(3) organizations, which means those organizations receive tax-exempt status. To take advantage of the benefit of tax exemption, however, houses of worship and non-profits must follow federal tax law, which prohibits them from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. While intervening on behalf of a candidate in elections is prohibited, religious leaders may still discuss political issues. Furthermore, if houses of worship really want to endorse a candidate, they can do so, but they must forfeit their tax-exempt status.  AU’s Project Fair Play website clearly sets out what churches may or may not do while retaining their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

This rule prevents tax-deductible charitable donations from being used to support candidates. Religious institutions also benefit, as tying political candidates with religion is undoubtedly divisive and distracts from religious doctrine itself. [Read more…]