The dust is still settling here in Washington from November’s seismic elections. The new Congress was seated last month, and now the work begins in earnest.
Shortly after the new year, the Americans United staff came together for our first meeting of 2007. As I looked around the room and listened to the staff reports on recent activities, I could not help but be impressed. I think you would have been too.
I saw a lot of folks who have been working hard since the ball dropped in Times Square. Nobody was sanguine about the challenges of 2007, even with a new Congress in power that is less receptive to Religious Right overtures. Indeed, one of the things we learned at this meeting is that one of the first pieces of legislation introduced in the 110th Congress was a school prayer amendment – and its sponsor is a Democrat. We also got an update on a spate of voucher bills that have suddenly appeared in several states.
AU’s Legislative Department knows it can’t slack off. Staff members are already scheduling visits with new members of Congress so our elected representatives and their staffs know that the First Amendment is something they cannot ignore during their tenure.
We have some specific goals in mind: We’d like to see real oversight of the taxpayer-funded grants being doled out under the “faith-based” initiative, and we want to see an end to all forms of religious discrimination in these publicly funded programs. It would be great to have a congressional investigation into allegations of religious discrimination in the military, something Americans United helped to expose two years ago.
The Legal Department also started the year with a bang. A 100-page legal brief came due on an expedited schedule in a case challenging a government religious display in Texas. This led to several of our lawyers pulling a series of “all nighters,” which they capped with a frenzied dash to Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia for the absolute final Federal Express pickup of the day.
Meanwhile, other AU attorneys labored to prepare for the upcoming oral argument in our lawsuit challenging state funding of a fundamentalist indoctrination program at an Iowa prison. We won this case last year, but the other side is appealing. The legal team is also hard at work fighting the federal government’s effort to dismiss our lawsuit to get the Veterans Administration to acknowledge that it should have permitted the placement of a Wiccan symbol on the memorial marker of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2005.
AU’s Communications staff was busy writing op-eds for possible placement on the 60th anniversary of Everson v. Board of Education, the landmark church-state ruling that defined the broad scope of the principle of “no establishment” of religion. The Communications team has also been laboring to promote our joint First Freedom First project with The Interfaith Alliance Foundation. (The Web site www.firstfreedomfirst.com now features a book corner spotlighting authors who have signed our educational petition and some exciting new “celebrity” endorsers – no, not Paris Hilton). Radio shows were being booked, press inquiries were being handled and negotiations for a paperback edition of my book Piety & Politics were under way.
The end of one calendar year (with its tax implications) and the start of an AU membership renewal cycle kept the Development Department staff up late. This year we will be working with several new companies to make sure that you get the best possible service in responding to inquiries about ways to support AU with financial gifts of all sizes.
Our Field operation is still growing, with announcements about a revamped New York City chapter and others under way in Illinois, Georgia and Ohio. Meetings with our allies in other groups to plan educational activities around “abstinence-based” sex education and efforts by the Religious Right to control decisions at the end of life are in the brew.
Our internet and radio operations are expanding as well. AU’s blog, “The Wall of Separation,” should soon be able to accept comments from readers, and my “CultureShocks” radio show will be available by “podcast.” (If you don’t know what that means, ask any 14-year-old).
All of this activity can take place only with the dedicated efforts of our Accounting, Executive and Administrative personnel. Hard-working staff members handle the sometimes less glamorous, but crucial, tasks that keep Americans United running on a day-to-day basis.
Finally, I’m not planning any work slowdowns myself. In fact, my speaking schedule for 2007 is rapidly filling up. I’ll be addressing AU chapters, allied groups, professional organizations and others in Florida, Montana, California, New York and Virginia in the next few weeks. I’m sure I’ll work in more than a few radio and television appearances as well.
You can help in many ways: Visit AU online (www.au.org), write a letter to the editor, communicate with your member of Congress and contribute to AU – to name just a few. It’s going to be an exciting and busy year, but a productive one too.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.