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Americans United for Separation of Church and State

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Description: Private organization that, using legal channels, attempts to prevent any governmental aid to religious schools or social service providers.


Significance: Beginning in the 1950's, Americans United became involved in litigation in the Supreme Court and other federal and state courts to prevent religiously sponsored schools and social service providers from obtaining direct or even indirect financial benefits from the government.


After the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), permitting states to provide bus transportation for parochial school children, a group led by Bromley Oxnam, a prominent Methodist bishop, and Paul Blanshard, the controversial author of polemical books warning that “Catholic power” was a threat to U.S. freedom, founded Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In recent years, the group renamed itself Americans United for Separation of Church and State and is often referred to simply as Americans United. Americans United sponsors litigation, provides legal counsel, and submits friend-of-the-court briefs in an effort to persuade the Supreme Court to interpret the First Amendment's prohibition of “laws respecting an establishment of religion” to prevent any governmental aid to religiously sponsored schools or social service providers. Its influence can be seen in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), in which the Court set guidelines for interpreting cases on establishment clause grounds. The organization was more successful in opposing direct aid to parochial schools than in preventing indirect benefits, such as tax credits, to the families of parochial school children. Key tests of the organization's strength are likely to come in future cases involving school vouchers and governmental support to religion-sponsored agencies to combat poverty, drug addiction, and other social evils. From its beginning, Americans United has been controversial. Supporters contend that it is a nonpartisan champion of religious freedom. Critics insist that it pursues a secularist liberal political agenda motivated by animus against conservative religious believers, particularly Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants.