April 2015 Church & State | Featured

Americans United enjoyed a dubious distinction late in February: Within the space of a week, the organization was singled out for attack by two Religious Right groups.

First out of the gate was the Liberty Institute, a Religious Right legal group based in Texas. The Institute published an article titled “5 Dangerous Enemies Against Your Christian Faith” on the website Charisma News. Americans United was among the five.

In a brief synopsis, Liberty Institute noted that Americans United was founded in 1947. Just about everything else it reported after that was a lie, a half-truth or an inflammatory distortion.

According to the Liberty Institute, AU has “worked to ban ‘God’ from graduation speeches, shut down the activity of prison ministries, outlaw school vouchers allowing parents to send children to religious schools, and tear down veterans memorials.”

Added the Liberty Institute, “They also constantly lobby Con­gress and threaten religious activity in local communities.”

The charges were a distortion of AU’s work that failed to tell the whole story. In public schools, for example, Americans United has opposed coercive, school-sponsored prayer and proselytizing during events like graduation, but the group hasn’t tried to stop voluntary expressions of religion.

The claim about prison ministries also lacked context. AU does not oppose voluntary religious activity by inmates and supports the right of religious groups to visit prisoners. But AU did successfully shut down an evangelical Christian prison ministry in Iowa because it was tax funded and gave special perks to inmates who were willing to live in a fundamentalist environment.

The program, run by Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship, should never have received public support, AU argued. The group would not have opposed it had it operated with private money and not fostered unequal treatment of inmates based on religious belief.

On vouchers, the Liberty Institute has it almost right. AU does oppose school vouchers, arguing that the people who believe in the mission of sectarian schools should pay for propagation of religion, not the taxpayer at large. AU believes private religious schools – like all religious enterprises – function best when they are not tied to the state.

The matter of veterans’ memorials also lacks context. AU has sued over memorials festooned with Christian symbols. Such displays, AU maintains, fail to honor all of our veterans, who come from various religious and philosophical backgrounds.

Even the Institute’s claim about lobbying is strange. Like a lot of non-profit groups, AU does lobby in Congress – but it’s not “constant.” As a non-profit, there are limits on the amount of lobbying Americans Uni­ted can do.

Finally, AU does not “threaten religious activity in local communities.” The group supports the right of all religious people to engage in voluntary forms of worship on their own time and with their own dime. AU does oppose any action by government to sponsor or promote religion. That is not the task of the state.

In the article, Liberty Institute asserted that it defeated AU in cases over graduation prayer and a veterans’ memorial that contained Christian symbols in King, N.C. These claims are not true.

The graduation prayer matter refers to a legal fight that took place in Castroville, Texas, in 2012. That case was settled out of court on terms favorable to Americans Uni­ted. (See “Graduation Vindication,” April 2012 Church & State.) The battle over the veterans’ memorial in King, N.C., was also settled out of court – again on terms that gave AU’s client, Steven Hewett, what he wanted.

The sectarian war memorial and other Christian symbols were removed and have been replaced by a secular monument. It’s also worth noting that the Liberty Institute played a modest role in this lawsuit. The group sought to intervene on behalf of some veterans. The city’s defense was handled primarily by a private law firm and the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The Institute’s claim that Americans United is a threat to the “Christian faith” is amusing, in light of the fact that the organization is led by the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, an ordained Uni­ted Church of Christ minister. Lynn holds a master’s in theology from Boston University School of The­ology. (He also has a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.)

The four other groups listed by the Liberty Institute are American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Four days after that list was issued, another Religious Right group lashed out at Americans United. The American Family Association, a stridently fundamentalist outfit based in Tupelo, Miss., released a “Bigotry Map” listing “anti-Christian” groups in America.

The map, obviously based on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s map of American hate groups, broke down the groups into four categories: “Homosexual Agenda,” “Anti-Christian,” “Atheist” and “Humanist.”

Americans United was listed under the “Anti-Christian” category. These organizations, they AFA asserted, actively engage “in the complete eradication of the Christian faith from society, government and private com­merce. These groups file lawsuits and use intimidation to silence any reference to Christianity from the public square.”

The American Family Association was founded in the late 1970s as the National Federation for Decency and originally worked to clean up smut on television. The rise of cable left that campaign in tatters, so the group changed its name and shifted its focus. It was soon offering Religious Right boilerplate – attacking gay people, demanding Christianity in public schools and promoting bogus “Christian nation” views of American history. In recent years, the AFA has led the campaign to defeat the imaginary “war on Christmas.” Every holiday season, its staffers scrutinize the ads published by retailers and blast any company that fails to use the word “Christmas.”

Unfortunately for the AFA, the map left a little bit to be desired. Although it purported to list more than 200 groups nationwide, many of them are simply chapters of larger national organizations.

For example, several AU chapters appear on the list. Other groups seem mainly to have a social function, such as a student group in D.C. called the American University Rationalists & Atheists.

Looking at the list, one gets the sense that the AFA simply went to the websites of some national church-state, LGBT and humanist groups and dumped their list of local affiliates into a database.

Although even there the job was spotty. The American Civil Liberties Union, a frequent bogeyman of the Religious Right, has affiliates in every state. Some are listed and some are not. Offices of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBT-rights group, were listed in North Dakota, Dallas and Austin, even though HRC has no chapters in those places.

Other organizations appear to have been overlooked entirely – and at least one was angry about it. Amherst, N.Y., is home to the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a large humanist organization. It’s not on the map. Neither is the D.C.-based American Humanist Association, although some of its chapters are. Paul Fidalgo, communications director for the CFI, issued a cheeky statement to the AFA demanding that the group be put on the map. Several other non-theistic organizations followed suit.

Some of the groups listed are hardly culture warriors. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) was listed as a Washington, D.C.-based threat. Although the AARP is known mainly as a large lobby that watches out for the interests of senior citizens (and offers them discounts on goods and services), the AFA blasted the group because it allegedly “strongly campaigns for homosexual marriage in all 50 states.”

AU’s Lynn said he was amused to see Americans United on the map. Lynn said attacks by groups like the AFA and the Liberty Institute are evidence that Americans United is effective. These theocratic organizations, Lynn said, wouldn’t single out AU if they weren’t worried about the group’s ability to get things done.

“We’ve beaten the Religious Right in courts of law and in the court of public opinion,” Lynn said. “That’s why they lash out. I consider attacks like this a badge of honor, and I thank all supporters of Americans United for making our work possible.”