American Ethical Union



New York, NY

Tax ID:


Tax-Exempt Status:



Humanist, Religious



Executive Director:

Rachel Pfeffer

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The American Ethical Union is a national humanist membership organization with roots in the Ethical Culture Movement that has historically been involved in the founding of notable left-of-center organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. In addition to promoting non-theistic religious-philosophical views, it advocates for left-of-center immigration, abortion, and election-administration policies.


Background and Formation

The American Ethical Union is a humanist religious organization that coalesced out of the Ethical Culture Movement, which began in 1873, when its founding figure and ideologue, Felix Adler, delivered the speech “Judaism of the Future” at his father’s synagogue, definitively breaking with Judaism’s Reform movement. 1

Following his 1873 speech, Adler was invited to give another by a group of New Yorkers on May 15, 1876, beginning a lecture series for the community that on February 21, 1877, formally incorporated as the New York Society for Ethical Culture. In the years following, the New York Society launched social projects. In 1877, the Society launched a free preschool program for immigrant families; in 1878, a nursing service tending to the homebound in low-income areas of New York City; and in 1880, a Workingman’s School providing industrial and trade training to children. 2

In 1882, in the wake of the rapid growth of the New York Society, aligned humanists in Chicago launched a counterpart society, which notably admitted women as well as men. Like the New York Society, the organization held lectures and managed social reform projects. In that vein, more humanist societies began incorporating in major cities and in 1889 the ethical societies of New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago, in the interest of creating a central body to govern their efforts, formed a national federation of Ethical Societies, which became the American Ethical Union. 3

Creation of Liberal Infrastructure

In 1893, after Ethical Societies had formed in other countries, the societies with the support of the American Ethical Union began holding meetings of the “International Ethical Movement,” which in turn led to the founding of the World Congress of Religions (later renamed the Parliament of the World’s Religions). In the early 1900s, the American Ethical Union was instrumental, often lending support and sharing staff, to the founding of a number of left-leaning organizations such as the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. 4

Institutional Non-Theism

In 1952, the American Ethical Union in cooperation with international ethical humanist organizations founded the International Humanist and Ethical Union, now known as Humanists International. Later in 1957, the American Ethical Union fundraised for and wrote a brief in support of the plaintiff in Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, which established that institutions without an orientation toward a god or gods, which nonetheless function in ways similar to churches, can qualify for religious tax-exempt status. 5


In addition to providing aligned humanist community services and programs, the American Ethical Union, both as an independent body and through its member societies, engages in advocacy in support of left-of-center policy positions that it refers to as “Ethical Action.” For instance, the Union has at various points issued statements and organized campaigns involving its member societies against election-integrity laws, capital punishment, and immigration restrictions; and in support of environmentalist policies. 6 7 8 9


As of March 2023, the American Ethical Union lists 23 member societies in locations including Baltimore, Maryland; Brooklyn, New York; Bergen County, New Jersey; Asheville, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; and Northern Virginia. 10


Rachel Pfeffer, formerly interim executive director, has been the executive director of the American Ethical Union since 2023. 11 12

Carolyn Parker, a member of the Ethical Society of Austin and a humanist activist, is the president of the American Ethical Union’s 2022-2023 board of directors. 13


  1. “History.” American Ethical Union. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  2. [1] “History.” American Ethical Union. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  3. History.” American Ethical Union. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  4. “History.” American Ethical Union. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  5. “History.” American Ethical Union. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  6. “Ethical Action.” American Ethical Union. Accessed March 6, 2023..
  7. “RECLAIM OUR VOTE.” American Ethical Union. October 20, 2022. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  8. “AEU Opposes Death Penalty.” American Ethical Union. July 29, 2019. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  9. “Atheists Respond to US Border and Detention Crisis.” American Ethical Union. July 9, 2019. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  10. “MEMBER SOCIETIES.” American Ethical Union. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  11. [1] “Ethical Community Town Hall with Rachel Pfeffer.” American Ethical Union. February 13, 2023. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  12. “STAFF, BOARD & COMMITTEES.” American Ethical Union. Accessed March 6, 2023.
  13. “Carolyn Parker, Chair of the AAEU Social Justice Committee: The Inspiration of Ethical Culture.” Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. November 27, 2022. Accessed March 6, 2023.
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Nonprofit Information

  • Accounting Period: September - August
  • Tax Exemption Received: February 1, 2013

  • Available Filings

    No filings available.

    American Ethical Union

    2 West 64th Street
    New York, NY