Biography and History

The organization that became Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded in 1947 to protect church-state separation and religious freedom, as well as to educate lawmakers, religious leaders, and the general public regarding Constitutional religious liberties. The organization also participates in court cases and acts as a liaison between its members and the United States Congress.

Americans United was founded as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (POAU) on November 20, 1947 in Chicago and officially incorporated in 1948. In Chicago, a group of prominent churchmen, educators, and civic leaders met to discuss the need to increase public understanding of and support for the constitutional principle of church-state separation. At the meeting, the group approved the Manifesto defining the goals of POAU and establishing the national structure, which includes a national office and state and local chapters. The Manifesto, largely written by Charles Clayton Morrison, established that the group would defend and repair the "wall of separation between church and state" with a focus on keeping church separate from the public education system. Dr. Glenn L. Archer, dean of Washburn University Law School, was appointed the organization's first executive director in July 1948. He served the organization in this capacity until 1976. In March 1949, the group had sufficent support to purchase a building for their headquarters in Washington, D.C. Except for the period 1969-1994, when they were located in the Washington suburb Silver Spring, Maryland, Americans United has been located in Washington, D.C.

POAU was founded largely because of the climate in the United States permitting government support of religious schools, notably the 1947 Supreme Court decision of Everson v. Board of Education that affirmed the principle of the separation of church and state but approved busing children to parochial schools at public expense on the grounds that it provided welfare to the child, not the school. Fearing that this would provide justification for other federal funding to parochial schools, POAU instituted a multifaceted, proactive program to educate the American public on the issues at stake and raise support for church-state separation. They began a bimonthly newsletter, Church and State, in 1948 which became monthly in 1949. Also in 1949, the group held the first national conference on church and state. The conference grew quickly, attracting 4,000 attendees to the second conference. They produced pamphlets, brochures, and issue papers which were distributed nationwide, and Archer and other staff members spoke at numerous events around the country as well as speaking with members of Congress and state legislatures.

In the 1950s, POAU expanded their efforts to other church-state separation fronts while continuing to oppose tax funding for religious schools. One early success for the organization was a state court ruling in 1949 removing Catholic control of a public school in Dixon, New Mexico. POAU continued to file lawsuits to free other "captive schools," public schools under the control of a particular religious group. Other important issues for POAU were challenging religiously based censorship, such as information on birth control, and successfully protesting against the appointment of a U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.

Beginning in 1952, POAU fought numerous attempts to provide "parochiaid," government funding to parochial schools for books, transportation, or general expenses. In 1969, Americans United joined a Pennsylvania coalition in the lawsuit Lemon v. Kurtzman, which lead to a significant parochiaid decision striking down various forms of tax aid to religious schools. Subsequently, supporters of parochial aid put their efforts into providing aid to parents and students, such as educational vouchers and parental choice movements. Another important issue for POAU was prayer and religious instruction in public schools. In 1962 and 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court declared government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools as unconstitutional, which marked the beginning of repeated efforts to amend the Constitution to allow for school prayer and worship. POAU opposed each attempted amendment in their publications and by testifying before Congress. In 1972, the organization was officially renamed Americans United for Separation of Church and State after a decade of being referred to as Americans United.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the rise of the modern Religious Right became a point of concern for Americans United. Groups of fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants such as Reverend Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition became politically powerful. Many of their issues violate the church-state separation principle, including teaching creationism in science classes, tax aid for private religious schools through education vouchers or tax subsidies, and banning abortion. Americans United helped win a series of court victories against many of these issues, and also raised awareness among the American public about the agenda of these groups. Their victories included defeats in the U.S. Senate of President Ronald Reagan's tuition tax credit proposal (1983) and school prayer amendment (1984).

During this period, for the first time, Americans United experienced a change in executive director. Archer stepped down in 1976 and was replaced by Andrew Leigh Gunn from 1976 to 1978. In 1979, Richard G. Puckett, a Southern Baptist minister and editor and journalist for several Baptist journals, became director. He served in this role until 1982, when he was replaced by W. Melvin Adams. Adams, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, had been active in Americans United since 1960, including as a board member. Dr. Robert L. Maddox, a Baptist minister and former Carter White House official, became executive director in 1984. The most recent change was in 1992, when Barry Lynn was appointed. Lynn is a civil liberties activist and attorney whose career includes serving as legislative counsel with the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as being an ordained United Church of Christ minister. As of 2010, Lynn remains as executive director of Americans United.

As of 2010, Americans United remains an active organization in the effort to preserve the separation of church and state. The group maintains a presence in state and national legislatures, fights cases in state and federal courts, continues to publish Church & State and other publications, continues to sponsor an annual conference on church and state, and works with the media to ensure coverage of church-state issues is fair and even. Americans United receives dozens of requests a week for information or assistance on separation of church and state issues. Although the particular issues have evolved, the main focus of the organization continues to be maintaining religious neutrality in the public school system and preventing tax money to be used for religious schools and ministries.

Source: From the finding aid for MC185

  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State Records. 1947-2013 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC185

    The organization that became Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded in 1947 to protect church-state separation and religious freedom, as well as to educate lawmakers, religious leaders, and the general public regarding Constitutional religious liberties. The records document the administration and issues of the organization from its founding and include correspondence, meeting materials, and publications.

  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State Records. 1947-2013 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC185

    The organization that became Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded in 1947 to protect church-state separation and religious freedom, as well as to educate lawmakers, religious leaders, and the general public regarding Constitutional religious liberties. The records document the administration and issues of the organization from its founding and include correspondence, meeting materials, and publications.