The Wall We Support: Local and National Humanist Groups Help Bolster the Wall between Church and State

People who are attracted to humanism tend to have a strong interest in social and political activism. As it says in Humanist Manifesto III, “We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain that it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.” Many local groups are becoming invested in incorporating separation of church and state advocacy into their organization’s mission statement, but lack the knowledge and resources to engage in direct action.

One group well-versed in church/state advocacy is the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), whose mission is to be an “effective advocate for state/church separation by uniting local freethinkers in practical activism.” Just two weeks ago CFFC President David Williamson spoke on Fox 35’s Good Day Orlando about the newly introduced “Religious Expression in Public Schools” bill (Florida SB 436, HB 303). Williamson explained that this bill will “allow teachers to operate religious clubs and engage in prayer with students at public schools in Florida.” Specifically, the bill violates the Establishment Clause under the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision Bd. of Educ. v. Mergens, and the Equal Access Act (section (c)(3)), because it deliberately does “not prevent school personnel from participating in religious activities.” When teachers participate in religious activity with students during student club meetings, they violate the separation of church and state by endorsing religion and actively or even passively coercing students to participate in religious activity.

I asked Williamson about ways in which local humanist groups can publicly and effectively advocate for church/state separation and report Establishment Clause violations. The first step, he says, is to “find the individuals interested in this type of work and create small committees or task forces that cover specific issues.” For example, someone may want to track movements in the state legislature while someone else monitors the religious right in your community. It’s important for these small committees to then report back to the entire group at general meetings.

Once small committees are formed, they need to know where to look for potential violations. Williamson always turns to all forms of social media because “religious organizations are always trying to promote their mission.” He encourages humanist groups to look at school’s social media accounts, including sports teams’ and after-school clubs’ social media. He also recommends subscribing to city and county newsletters, which include local event listings. To find out what’s happening at the state legislative level he recommends having a member of your committee focus on “religious” bills and sign up for Action Alerts by groups like the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America. Williamson has found “Google Alerts” to be particularly helpful in finding Establishment Clause violations by entering select phrases like “team prayer,” “school team chaplains,” or “separation of church and state,” in order to receive an email when any of those phrases are used in an online article.

What if you’re not entirely sure what constitutes a church/state violation? The Central Florida Freethought Community’s “Dirty Dozen” website page offers a great resource for identifying the twelve most common violations in public schools along with detailed explanations and citations to relevant case law. Another resource for better understanding violations is the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s State/Church FAQ. Finally, if your local group encounters a violation of the separation of church and state, they should report it to the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association.