I don’t like to contradict people’s mothers, but sometimes you just have to.
After I finished speaking one evening recently at a United Church of Christ in Redlands, Calif., a student from a local high school told me my stories of local activists had “inspired him.” I thanked him, and he added: “See, you showed us how one person can make a difference, but my mother keeps saying one person can’t.”
What could I do but say: “Your mom is wrong”?
On that early September visit to California, I actually ran into a number of people who had made a very big difference in the meaning of separation of church and state.
In Redlands, I learned about an activist named Anne MacMurray who organized opposition to a ballot initiative to put a shining Latin cross back on the Redlands city seal after the American Civil Liberties Union had urged its removal in 2004. “Measure Q,” as it was known, was defeated by nearly 60 percent of Redlands voters in November of 2005.
The removal of this religious symbol from display as part of an official city emblem was not accomplished by a lawsuit or by what the Religious Right likes to label “unelected black-robed tyrants.” All it took was a small group of people who stood up for the separation of church and state and mobilized against the misguided measure.
The next day in Los Angeles, I met with AU members in our Guardians program as well as about 25 area activists who had attended one of our regional training seminars (which mix issue information with media training). There I got acquainted with Jeannie Parent, the new president of our San Fernando Valley Chapter.
Jeannie’s predecessor, Harry Schwartzbart, was the one who contacted AU’s Legal Department in January 2006 to express concern because a local high school teacher was attempting to teach a Bible-based critique of evolution in a month-long class called “Philosophy of Design.”
Local parents signed on as plaintiffs, and as you may remember, we filed a lawsuit to stop it. After a lengthy debate in the county, the school board voted to end the class early and never repeat the mistake.
Jeannie mentioned to me that she “had always taken for granted that there was a wall of separation between church and state.” Like many of us, she was “shocked” when intelligent design surfaced in the California high school and “immediately got involved with Americans United.” That’s exactly what activist organizing is all about.
A few days before I got to California, our San Diego chapter joined with other groups to honor Phillip Paulson, a Vietnam veteran who has waged an 18-year battle to have a gigantic cross removed from a mountainside national war memorial. The alleged “war memorial” was meant to honor Korean War dead, but as the Jewish War Veterans of the United States point out, “Veterans of all faiths have served and died, and continue to serve and die in the war on terrorism…. It is an affront to non-Christian veterans for their service to be commemorated by a cross.”
Sadly, Paulson was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer earlier this summer. A new plaintiff, fellow Vietnam veteran Steve Trunk, has joined the suit to continue Paulson’s battle if he can’t fight himself.
Also on a somber note, the cause of church-state separation recently lost three people who definitely made a difference. The Rev. Russell Bennett, a Congregationalist pastor from Tulsa, was a powerful opponent of the “faith-based” initiative and was able to bring hundreds of people together for a meeting when I passed through his community for a speech recently.
We also lost Vashti McCollum at the age of 93. Her courageous efforts to stop state-supported religious training in public schools made constitutional history in 1948. Her son Jim is an ardent AU activist in Arkansas today.
Finally, Robert S. Alley, long-time Americans United board member and professor emeritus at the University of Richmond, passed away in August. Bob’s father was a Baptist minister who believed wholeheartedly in a healthy separation between church and state, and he passed this conviction onto his son; thus, Bob was an activist at an early age. In third grade, he protested daily Bible studies in his public school by sitting in the hallway with his only Jewish classmate.
It takes just one person to speak out against a constitutional violation. One person can be plaintiff in a lawsuit. One person can write a newspaper column that spurs hundreds to action. One person can post something on an internet blog, send it to hundreds of others at the push of a button and watch it spread around the globe.
In fact, many people are waiting for that one person to stand up; they are waiting for a visionary leader they can follow.
All of these accomplishments by just one person can’t help but remind me of Margaret Mead’s famous dictum: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I refuse to believe one person can’t make a difference. Over the years as I’ve traveled around the country spreading the word about Americans United, I’ve met too many who already have.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.