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Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Americans United or AU for short) is a group that advocates separation of church and state, a legal doctrine set forth in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"
Americans United describes itself as officially non-sectarian and non-partisan. Its national headquarters are in Washington, D.C.. It has both religious and non-religious members, members from various political parties, and members of the clergy. Its current executive director, Barry W. Lynn, is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, as well as an attorney involved with civil liberties issues.
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Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded in 1947 as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (POAU) by a coalition of religious, educational and civic leaders in response to proposals pending in the U.S. Congress to extend government aid to private religious schools. They believed that government support for religious education would violate church-state separation. The decision was made to form a national organization to promote and defend this point of view.
The organization aimed to influence political leaders, and began publishing Church & State magazine in 1952 and other materials in support of church-state separation to educate the general public.
In its first years a main focus of AU's activity was opposition to the political activities of the Roman Catholic Church and it was thus seen by critics as an anti-Catholic organization. In 1960 AU Executive Director Glenn L. Archer entered into a dialog with presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to assess his views on church-state relations.
In 1962 and 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Abington School District v. Schempp decision which struck down local government-sponsored school prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Calls soon began emanating from Congress to amend the Constitution to protect the "right to pray in school." But Americans United defended the rulings, pointing out that no branch of government has the right to compel children to take part in religious worship and that truly voluntary student prayer remained legal.
In the late 1970s and the 1980s the advocates of the Christian right, including Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, attacked church-state separation, tried to introduce fundamentalist theology into the public schools and demanded tax subsidies for religious education. Americans United helped secure a string of court victories that turned back these attempts.
In the 1990s Pat Robertson formed the Christian Coalition of America. This organization demanded an end to public education and called for the “Christianization” of politics. Americans United publicized and opposed this agenda.
In recent years AU has continued to oppose religion in public schools, school voucher initiatives in the states, and “faith-based” initiatives in the federal government and in the states. AU participated in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which concerned the teaching of intelligent design in public school science classes.
Americans United has tried to ensure that houses of worship do not endorse or oppose candidates for public office, which would violate their religious tax exemption. AU has submitted reports of possible violations to the IRS. The organization encourages its members to monitor sermons and activities in local houses of worship for illegal politicking.
On the weekend of Sept. 28 – Oct. 1, 2012, AU sponsored a nationwide event, "Voices United", consisting of concerts and performances from over 100 artists in all 50 states to rally for the cause of church-state separation.