Defending the Separation of Church and State: An Interview with Rachel Laser

We’re just a few days away from the American Humanist Association’s Annual Conference, “Distant but Together: A Virtual Celebration of Humanism,” which takes place this Saturday, August 8.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, will be joined by AHA Legal Director and Senior Counsel Monica Miller for a conversation about church-state separation. Laser and Miller will examine the climate following this term’s Supreme Court decisions, discuss the current condition of the wall of separation, and how supporters can protect the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

In addition to her role at Americans United (AU), Laser is a lawyer, advocate, and strategist who has dedicated her career to making our country more inclusive. She has a proven track record of uniting both faith and secular leaders and advocacy organizations to make tangible progress on some of the most important issues of our time. She is an advocate for racial justice and has led workshops, given speeches, and worked with schools and universities to challenge racism and expose privilege. As the deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC), Laser worked to further its historic mission of strengthening the separation of religion and government. She also ran interfaith campaigns on a number of critical issues, including LGBTQ equality; immigration reform; gun violence prevention; and paid sick, family and medical leave. Prior to that role, Laser directed the culture program at Third Way (a Washington, DC, progressive think tank specializing in understanding and reaching moderates) and was senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). She is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Chicago Law School. She also serves as a national board member of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Meredith Thompson: What does religious freedom mean to you? How did you become interested in church-state issues?

Rachel Laser: Religious freedom means that we can live as our true selves, no matter what our belief system, and trust that our government will treat us all equally. To make good on our country’s constitutional promise of religious freedom, the government must be guided by our shared American values, and never by a religious perspective.

I am dedicated to keeping religion and government separate because I know how crucial it is to achieving our promise of an inclusive America that treats religious and other minorities equally. Across our country’s history and still today, our government has twisted religious freedom to oppress not only religious minorities and nontheists, but also Black people, women, and LGBTQ people.

For me personally, as an American Jew, religious freedom gives me security. The security that I am as American as anyone else, the security that I have equal opportunity here, the security that I can send my kids to public school without fearing they’ll be taught a religion that is not my family’s. America’s commitment to religious freedom enabled my relatives, as I imagine many of yours, to flee religious persecution, rebuild their lives here, and even thrive. One of the reasons it is my great honor to lead Americans United is because I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to America for having a commitment to religious freedom, and I want to do all I can to protect this core part of our DNA.

Thompson: What do you see as the primary threats to the separation of church and state today?

Laser: One key threat is the misperception that it’s not under threat and an accompanying lack of urgency to protect it. Another is the coordinated effort— in the Trump administration, the US Supreme Court, and state legislative initiatives like Project Blitz—to redefine religious freedom to mean religious privilege. This old playbook, which threatens to normalize the weaponization of religion, is too easily pulled out and put back in use by those in power who are seeking to preserve traditional power structures. We especially see this today with the Trump administration.

Thompson: What is your response to individuals who don’t consider church-state violations worth challenging?

Laser: They’re putting our democracy at risk. As the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) wrote in his posthumous letter published by the New York Times: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

And they are putting themselves and their loved ones at risk too. Religious freedom protects all of us, whether we are a religious minority, a nontheist, LGBTQ, female, or even Christian.

Aimee Maddonna is the plaintiff in an active lawsuit AU has brought against the Trump administration and South Carolina Governor McMaster for authorizing religious discrimination with the use of taxpayer money. Maddonna was turned away from helping children at an evangelical Christian foster care agency because she’s Catholic. “When most people think of people being turned away, they think of equally despicable circumstances where a gay couple or a Jewish couple is turned away,” Maddonna told the Associated Press. “If you don’t protect the rights of everybody, it sets a precedent that will eventually touch on you.”

Thompson: There appears to be an assumption in the United States that church-state separation work is anti-religious. Why do you think that is, and how do we, as activists, respond?

Laser: It’s so frustrating that our cause is sometimes seen as anti-religion because those whose identities are strongly rooted in their religion are among our strongest supporters and always have been. AU’s founders, though a mixed lot theologically and politically, were people of faith. And continuing our tradition of religious leaders, Jim Winkler, the president of the National Council of Churches, became a trustee of Americans United last year. He joins activists, clergy, and one of the country’s preeminent atheist advocates in serving on our board.

Our cause gets mislabeled as anti-religious by those who want the government to give them religious privilege, not religious freedom. Religious freedom is the right to be religious or nonreligious, as we choose, and to practice our religion however we want—so long as we don’t harm others. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has explained in many of her dissents: “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

To fight back, we must continue to form broad and diverse coalitions and to find both religious and nonreligious messengers and messages that work across these communities.

Thompson: What are the biggest challenges you face as president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State?

Laser: How much time have you got?!

One challenge is figuring out how to ensure that the new generation of leaders understands and values the importance of keeping religion and government separate. We must connect the dots clearly between church-state separation and the many causes that “zoomers” already care about, from reproductive freedom to LGBTQ equality. Another challenge is figuring out how to make our movement more diverse, because we’ve been very white for too long, in ways that have erased the unique experiences of Black and brown people when it comes to church-state separation and undervalued their voices. A third challenge is increasing our revenue. We need to grow our resources so that we can raise our visibility, build our movement, scale our excellent legal and public policy work, and counter our very well-funded opposition.

Thompson: What’s the best thing supporters can do to help keep the wall between church and state strong?

Laser: Make more noise. The beautiful thing about advocacy is that you can do your own version of it. Here are just a few suggestions: call your member of Congress and tell them to pass the Do No Harm Act, which makes clear that religious freedom must never be misused to cause others harm; write a letter to your local paper about the importance of church-states separation; share news about our issue on social media; give what you can and ask your friends to do the same to support groups like AHA and AU.

Study and understand our issue’s connection to racism. Religious freedom has too often been misused by the government to perpetuate white Christian power. How can we expand our current agenda to include more anti-racism work that is related to our cause, since we know the two are connected? How can we forge meaningful relationships with those who are fighting racism and anti-Blackness?

Develop deeper allyships with other causes and leaders—fighting for racial equity, fighting for reproductive freedom, fighting for LGBTQ equality, fighting for access to healthcare, fighting for public schools. Because our causes are connected at the hip.

Don’t miss Rachel Laser’s session at the AHA’s “Distant but Together” virtual conference on August 8, 2020. Registration is free and filling up fast! To secure your spot today, go to