On the Job

Written by David W. Major, Illustration by James Noel Smith

On the Job

A county clerk in Kentucky refuses to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. A creationist asks for tax credits to build a giant replica of Noah’s Ark at a Bible-themed amusement park. Donald Trump claims that as president he would not allow Muslim refugees into the United States.

Each of these cases represents a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which forbids the government from establishing an official religion or unduly favoring one religion over another. But such violations occur so frequently that they often go unnoticed by the general public.

Not so at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Washington, DC–based nonprofit where Erin Hagen MA ’15 works. The organization’s mission is to uphold the principle of “building a wall separating church and state,” as President Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. “Church-state separation is something many people take for granted,” says Hagen, a field associate with Americans United, which advocates through the courts, federal and state legislatures, and the media. “It wasn’t until I began talking with people who have been doing this work their whole lives that I realized how prevalent instances of religious discrimination are.”

After graduating with a master’s degree in women’s history, Hagen headed to DC for an internship at Americans United, where she received a crash course in the myriad issues the organization addresses. Her summer gig was made possible by the generosity of Paul and Rhoda Rosen Redleaf ’54, who created a fund that provides paid internships for Sarah Lawrence students through the Office of Career Services. Americans United was one of seven civic-minded nonprofits to participate in the fund’s inaugural program.

“It wasn’t until I began talking with people who have been doing this work their whole lives that I realized how prevalent instances of religious discrimination are.”

“Paul’s real interests are social justice and separation of church and state,” says Rhoda Redleaf. “Being a lifelong educator, an interest that began at Sarah Lawrence, I am primarily interested in early childhood education.”

Americans United was impressed enough with Hagen’s performance as an intern that the group offered her a full-time position—a rarity, given the financial constraints under which most nonprofits operate. As a field associate, Hagen works to strengthen the organization’s youth outreach.

“I have been able to test many of my ideas for how best to engage people on church-state separation issues,” Hagen says. “I also work with our members and activists of all ages, plugging them into the many church-state separation issues that Americans United addresses. The most rewarding thing is that I get to talk with and help empower people who are working to prevent one religion from being unduly favored over another in this country.”