Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Americans United) is a Washington, D.C.- based public interest organization committed to preserving the principles of separation of church and state and religious liberty through litigation, lobbying, and public education. Americans United advocates a broad interpretation of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution, sometimes described as a ‘‘strict’’ separationist approach. The organization’s primary focus and bulk of activity have been on establishment clause issues, opposing government financial support of religious institutions—including most forms of public aid to religious schools—officially sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools, and the public display of religious symbols on public property. The organization publishes Church & State magazine.

Americans United was founded in 1947 by moderate and evangelical Protestant leaders and professional educators who became alarmed at the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) upholding public payment of transportation expenses for children to attend parochial schools. The organizers also opposed President Harry S. Truman’s efforts to appoint an ambassador to the Vatican, claiming that the action provided official recognition of a religious body. The organization was founded as ‘‘Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State’’ (POAU), with its support coming largely from Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Seventh-Day Adventist bodies, as well as organizations such as the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Education Association, and several Masonic groups. The organization’s name, its primary opposition to parochial school funding, and its often highly charged rhetoric led to early claims that POAU was anti-Catholic.

In 1948, Americans United hired Glen Archer, dean of Washburn University Law School, as its first executive director. Archer, an effective public speaker and consummate fund-raiser, served as executive director for twenty-eight years, growing the membership to over two hundred thousand by the mid-1950s. Early supporters of Americans United, according to the organization, included Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. An early affiliate of and spokesperson for Americans United was Paul Blanshard, author of the best selling American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949) and God and Man in Washington (1959), both works criticized as being anti-Catholic in orientation.

From its beginnings, Americans United has been a leading litigation organization on establishment clause issues. Americans United’s earliest cases involved challenges to joint operating agreements between public and parochial schools (common in many rural areas during the 1940s and 1950s) and religiously based censorship of books and motion picture films. However, Americans United’s greatest impact came through its litigation against public funding of parochial schools and religious colleges. Americans United, sometimes in conjunction with other groups, litigated several of the leading funding cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including: Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968); Lemon v. Krutzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971); Tilton v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 672 (1973); Meek v. Pittenger, 421 U.S. 349 (1975); Grand Rapids School District v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373 (1985); Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000); and Zelman v. Simmons–Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002). The only Supreme Court decision bearing its name, however, is Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United, 454 U.S. 464 (1982), an Article III standing case.

By the late 1960s, Americans United had dropped its earlier name, ‘‘Protestants and Other Americans United,’’ and its anti-Catholic rhetoric had softened, indicating developing attitudes following Vatican II. Membership declined in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly following the retirement of Glen Archer in 1976, and the organization floundered under the leadership of several short-term directors. During the 1980s, Americans United expanded its involvement in issues concerning religion and public education and the free exercise of religion. The organization also became outwardly critical of the activities of the ascending religious Right, including groups such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Also, by the 1980s, Americans United’s support base had shifted from moderate and evangelical Protestants to liberal Protestants, Unitarians, Reform Jews, and nonbelievers. Americans United’s transformation to a secular- oriented civil rights organization was completed by the 1992 appointment of Barry Lynn, a former American Civil Liberties Union official, as executive director. Membership and name recognition subsequently grew under Lynn’s directorship.

Currently, Americans United litigates and lobbies in Congress and in state legislatures on a range of church–state issues, including private school vouchers, public school prayer and Bible reading, the teaching of evolution or creationism, charitable choice (public funding of religious charities), and the official display of the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols. Americans United cosponsored litigation in various voucher cases, including Zelman v. Simmons–Harris (2002). The organization also supported the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000).

STEVEN K. GREEN

References and Further Reading

  • Berg, Thomas C., Anti-Catholicism and Modern Church- State Relations, Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 33 (2001): 121–172. 
  • Creedon, Lawrence P., and William D. Falcon. United for Separation: An Analysis of POAU Assaults on Catholicism. Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1959. 
  • Jeffries, John C., and James E. Ryan, A Political History of the Establishment Clause, Michigan Law Review 100 (2001): 279–370. 
  • Lowell, C. Stanley. Embattled Wall. Washington, D.C.: Americans United, 1966. 
  • Lowell, C. Stanley, and Herbert S. Southgate. ‘‘POAU Position on Church–State Relations.’’ Journal of Church and State 5 (1963):41–60. 
  • Salisbury, Franklin C. The Separationist Position on Church State Relations. Washington, D.C.: Americans United, 1965. 
  • Stokes, Anson Phelps, and Leo Pfeffer. Church and State in the United States, rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964. 
  • Who’s Who in the P.O.A.U.? Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1951. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968) 
  • Grand Rapids School District v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373 (1985) 
  • Lemon v. Krutzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971) 
  • Meek v. Pittenger, 421 U.S. 349 (1975) 
  • Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000) 
  • Tilton v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 672 (1973) 
  • Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United, 454 U.S. 464 (1982) 
  • Zelman v. Simmons–Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) 

See also Christian Coalition; Zelman v. Simmons– Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)

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