Snow Go

AU Staff Kept hard At Work During The Great Blizzard Of ’10

Poet Carl Sandburg once wrote that “the fog comes on little cat feet.” The early February snows that struck Washington, D.C., didn’t arrive that way. The back-to-back blizzards came more like a crashing elephant – or maybe a whole pachyderm horde, dumping a total of three feet of snow in some areas.

Many streets were blocked, public transportation was suspended, and winds near gale force blasted anyone who ventured outside. The AU office was closed for nearly a week.

So what did the staff of Americans United do on these “snow days”?

I’m not going to guarantee that nobody slept in late one morning or that a few people didn’t take an afternoon break to watch a soap opera they hadn’t seen since college. I was amazed, however, at how much people worked from home and all of the good things that happened to help the cause of church-state separation even during our frozen week

Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser got word that the school board in Windsor, Conn., would stop holding graduations at First Cathedral, a large local church steeped in Christian symbols, icons and materials. 

Alex had written to five Connecticut school districts, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, asking them to move their high school ceremonies to secular venues. Windsor became the fifth and final one to see the constitutional light. Alex got out the word, and AU’s Communications Department informed a batch of only-slightly-less-snowbound Connecticut reporters.

As I was composing this column, word hit the news that a woman named Violet Infinger in Georgetown, S.C., who had been distributing scriptures to high school students and leading them in prayer before classes since l999, was told by the school superintendent that her conduct was not permitted. Instead, students interested in prayer will have to form a club and have a neutral faculty advisor. This was the result, not of a lawsuit or even a letter, but just a phone call from Ian Smith, an AU staff attorney.

Dena Sher, our states legislative counsel, sent letters to both houses of the Oklahoma legislature on proposals to create an elective course in study of the Bible. Dena’s letter to the Senate noted that the House version of the bill had important provisions that the courses could not encourage a commitment to religious beliefs and that teachers could not be assigned to the course on the basis of any religious test, profession of faith or religious affiliation.

Dena also found for me reports of all the anti-separationist activities in the Florida legislature so I could have up-to-date and informed conversations at two places I was scheduled to speak the following weekend.

Aaron Schuham and Maggie Garrett of the Legislative Department kept an eagle eye on the continuing machinations of the President’s Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The Council reported on its Web site that the advisory group — with most of its members voting by e-mail (and by a one-vote margin) — will recommend that religious entities receiving government grants and contracts should be required to form separate corporations to handle the money. Other recommendations will not be as good for preserving constitutional principles, but that battle will continue.

Development Director Marjorie Spitz Nagrotsky worked on a new proposal for support of our efforts from foundations around the country. (I’m sure she would want me to note that there is an envelope right here in this magazine into which any reader can put a check even if they don’t run a foundation.)

Beth Corbin and AU’s Field Department hummed right along, working the phones and sending e-mails to chapter activists to line up speaking engagements and other public events. Steven Baines, who oversees outreach to religious groups for Americans United, was attending a conference in Texas and with D.C. airports closed was temporarily unable to get back home. 

The Communications Department updated “The Wall of Separation” blog, while our two Web gurus, Jon White and Maria Matveeva, kept postings coming and made sure information flowed to Facebook and other social networking sites. 

Managing Director Chris Colburn worked hard to coordinate a teleconference of AU’s Board of Trustees. Duane Davis, facilities manager and engineer for my radio show “CultureShocks,” braved the elements to record several new shows. Our accountants made sure the bills were paid.

Church & State Assistant Editor Rob Boston even managed to appear on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” the evening of the second blizzard. (An MSNBC four-wheel-drive truck helped.)

He discussed controversial Religious Right figure David Barton, who insists, despite all available evidence, that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.”

The snow is finally starting to melt. And as I write this, I’m preparing for a trip to Florida to speak to some activists there. I just got off the phone with one of the sponsors. She told me it might go to the low 30s tonight. Maybe I’ll barely feel like I left Washington.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.