When Barry W. Lynn agreed to become the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in September of 1992, he saw a world of opportunities before him.
The organization had a storied past and lots of potential, so Lynn got right to work. At the time he took the helm, AU was located in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. Two years later, Lynn engineered the group’s move to the heart of the nation’s capital.
Shortly before Lynn arrived at AU, the organization had hired an in-house legal director. (Before that, AU’s legal program was in the hands of an attorney who worked offsite.) While the organization had racked up many courtroom victories, Lynn knew that more was possible. He envisioned a team of attorneys in the office who could directly litigate cases, file briefs in others and work with local officials to resolve church-state issues before they ended up in court.
AU’s legislative program was focused on Capitol Hill. That’s important, but Lynn wanted to expand its reach and move into the state capitals as well.
Activism at the grassroots level was strong, but again Lynn sensed there was room for improvement. He also wanted to see AU do more in the media, especially as cable news grew increasingly popular.
Within a few years, all of that had come to pass. Thanks to Lynn’s vision – and a lot of hard work – Americans United’s staff grew fourfold, and its budget climbed from a modest $1.8 million to more than $7 million. Its legal, legislative, communications and field programs saw impressive growth.
Today AU stands at the forefront of the battle to preserve separation of church and state, and is a major player not only in Washington but around the country.
Lynn, now in his 25th year of service to Americans United, can point with pride to an impressive list of accomplishments. He has also laid the groundwork for future successes for Americans United – successes that someone else will oversee. Last month, Lynn, who will turn 70 in 2018, announced that he will retire as AU’s executive director at the end of this year.
Lynn said he began contemplating retirement last summer. This year, Americans United, which was founded in 1947, will celebrate its 70th year. With Lynn approaching that same age himself and having led AU for a quarter of a century, the time seemed right to step down.
“My vision for Americans United was admittedly ambitious,” Lynn said. “But it came about only because of the support of our members and activists. I had a goal, but it was AU’s members who made it possible.
“I’m confident,” he added, “that I’m leaving the organization in a strong position.”
Lynn’s tenure has been marked by a number of high-profile court battles, legislative skirmishes, dynamic public appearances and memorable media slugfests.
Lynn, an attorney and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, came to AU during a presidential election year. Immediately he noticed that some houses of worship in the country were blatantly violating a federal law that bars tax-exempt organizations from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.
This issue wasn’t new to AU – the organization warned Jesse Jackson’s campaign to stop collecting money in churches in 1988 during Jackson’s presidential campaign – but Lynn decided it was time to ramp things up. When a church near Binghamton, N.Y., audaciously ran a full-page ad in USA Today asserting that voting for Bill Clinton was a sin, AU swung into action. Lynn forwarded the ad to the Internal Revenue Service along with a letter requesting an investigation. The church was soon stripped of its tax-exempt status, and a media firestorm ensued.
A few years later, when Lynn decided that Americans United would launch a special program – Project Fair Play – to monitor church politicking violations, Religious Right leaders were infuriated. TV preacher Pat Robertson, during a March 1996 episode of his “700 Club” program, glared into the camera and proclaimed, “In my humble opinion, anybody who would turn a church in to the IRS is a little bit lower than a child molester, Barry!”
Under Lynn’s direction, AU became a constant thorn in Robertson’s side. The TV preacher’s political group, the Christian Coalition, was the most prominent Religious Right group in the nation in the 1990s. It claimed two million members, but Lynn was suspicious. Using postal records, AU learned that the group’s actual membership was not even 300,000. Lynn promptly released this information to the media, causing significant embarrassment to the Coalition.
In 1997, Lynn and AU scored a major coup against the Christian Coalition when AU obtained a recording of a behind-closed-doors speech by Robertson outlining his plan to seize control of the Republican Party in 2000 by building a political machine and setting himself up as a latter-day Boss Tweed. Robertson wanted to ensure that the party’s presidential candidate would be to his liking, and he saw creation of an old-fashioned political machine as the way to do it.
Robertson never intended for his remarks to become public, but Lynn believed the public deserved to know about the TV preacher’s political plans. He summoned several reporters from major media outlets to AU’s office in D.C. and presented them with copies of the recording. The story hit cable news immediately, and it headlined the next day’s newspapers.
At the same time, Lynn was also sparring with Jerry Falwell. Falwell’s Moral Majority had long since collapsed, and the bombastic TV preacher had even said on a few occasions that he was done with politics. But during the Clinton years, Falwell just couldn’t help himself. He jumped back into the political fray and was again a fixture in the media.
Cable news shows loved to pit Falwell against Lynn. In one memorable exchange on CNN’s “Crossfire,” Lynn good-naturedly offered to preach a sermon at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. Falwell wasn’t interested and snapped, “I wouldn’t trust you to preach the gospel out on the corner!”
Some of these rhetorical exchanges were harsh, but Lynn always tried to stay on the high road. In 2003, he agreed to take part in a debate billed as a “Clash of the Titans” at Robertson’s Regent University along with right-wing columnist Ann Coulter, famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, then-ACLU President Nadine Strossen, Robertson attorney Jay Sekulow and writer David Limbaugh. Although spirited, the dialogue remained cordial.
At different points in his AU career, Lynn hosted talk radio shows with Pat Buchanan and Oliver North, two prominent conservatives. The exchanges were pointed but polite.
(Alas, not everyone on the far right could behave that way. A California pastor, Wiley Drake, became so angry over Lynn’s advocacy of church-state separation that he announced he was launching “imprecatory prayers” against Lynn – praying for his death. A former Navy chaplain, Gordon Klingenschmitt, later announced that he was doing the same.)
During his tenure, Lynn led AU’s efforts to fight off several efforts in Congress to undermine church-state separation. An epic battle occurred after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced that he would seek to add a school prayer amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Gingrich turned the project over to U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), and the proposal that eventually emerged, known as the “Istook Amendment,” went far beyond school prayer: It would have removed church-state separation from the First Amendment by fostering official programs of religious worship in public schools, requiring government to give taxpayer aid to sectarian schools and other religious institutions and encouraging government to display religious symbols on public property.
Lynn was a prominent leader of the opposition to the amendment and worked with a coalition of religious and public policy groups to stop it. The battle dragged on for years, culminating in a vote in the House of Representatives on June 4, 1998. The amendment won a simple majority of 224 in favor to 203 against, but that was far short of the two-thirds majority required to pass a constitutional amendment.
The morning of the vote, Lynn appeared alongside members of Congress and leaders of religious and public policy groups at a press conference on Capitol Hill to denounce the amendment. At the time, a big-budget “Godzilla” reboot movie had been released and was playing in theaters nationwide. Lynn, a film buff (and a fan of Godzilla), reeled off a clever line, remarking, “The so-called ‘Religious Freedom Amendment’ would be a constitutional Godzilla, crushing religious liberty in its wake and destroying the true freedom the Bill of Rights gives us.”
Lynn also spoke out against other ill-conceived proposals in Congress, such as school voucher plans. During his time at AU, efforts to create a nationwide voucher plan failed, but a program limited to the District of Columbia did pass.
Lynn also often represented Americans United in testimony before Congress. In June of 2014, he agreed to appear as a witness during a hearing on religious freedom issues. Things took a turn for the bizarre when U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) badgered Lynn to take part in a theological discussion about hell.
“Do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to hell, consistent with Christian beliefs?” Gohmert demanded to know. Lynn told Gohmert that a theological discussion was probably not appropriate during a taxpayer-funded hearing, but offered to meet with the congressman over breakfast to explain his beliefs. Gohmert agreed, but the meeting never came to pass.
As Americans United grew, Lynn placed renewed emphasis on courtroom activity. Although Lynn did not personally litigate any of AU’s legal cases, he oversaw litigation efforts and worked with staff to line up good lawsuits that would set precedent and advance AU’s mission.
One of the most memorable was a 2001 case against Roy Moore, then chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who in the dead of night dragged a two-ton Ten Commandments monument into the state judicial building in Montgomery.
AU had tangled with Moore before. As a county judge, Moore had attempted to intervene in a school prayer case AU was litigating in federal court in 1997. Moore issued a bizarre, unsolicited order attempting to nullify a ruling from the federal court ordering a stop to various school-sponsored religious practices. AU knew the judge could be unstable, but was soon to learn just how extreme he could be.
After AU, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center won their case against Moore, the judge went on a tear and defied the ruling to remove the monument. Lynn again found himself in the media spotlight, arguing with Moore’s supporters on cable news programs. Lynn even traveled to New York City to film a segment with Stephen Colbert, then of “The Daily Show.” The segment was filmed in a church, and it took several hours to get a few minutes of tape.
Moore was eventually removed from the court for his antics, but got reelected as chief justice in 2012. A few years later, history repeated itself when Moore, again acting without authority, told probate judges in Alabama to ignore a federal court ruling striking down the state’s ban on marriage equality. (The case had been brought by Americans United and its allies.) LGBTQ rights activists filed a formal complaint against Moore, and he was again removed from the court.
In 2005, Lynn green-lighted what would become one of AU’s most important legal victories: a case against “intelligent design” (ID) creationism in a small town in Pennsylvania.
AU attorneys had warned the school board in Dover not to approve the pro-ID policy. The board did it anyway, and AU, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the National Center for Science Education, went to court. The policy was invalidated by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in a devastating 144-page opinion. Even more satisfying for Lynn, a Pennsylvania native, was the subsequent school board election when voters removed the pro-ID faction from their seats.
Lynn was also a prominent voice against the “faith-based” initiative. Originally called “charitable choice” during the Clinton years, the program was greatly expanded under President George W. Bush. AU had concerns that the initiative would be used to funnel tax dollars to sectarian organizations that might impose religion on people in need and discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff.
Lynn became the media’s go-to guy on the faith-based initiative, and even did an hour-long debate on the subject on PBS. (In the 1990s, Lynn took part in several debates with William F. Buckley on “Firing Line.”)
Always keeping an eye open for new ways to spread AU’s message, Lynn in 2008 arranged for Americans United to partner with the Interfaith Alliance to create a celebrity-filled broadcast that mixed music, comedy and interviews with a strong pro-separation of church and state message.
The program, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Separation of Church and State…But Were Afraid to Ask,” was hosted by actor Peter Coyote and featured performances by the Bacon Brothers (a band formed by actor Kevin Bacon and his brother, Michael) as well as in-studio comments by well-known actor Jack Klugman, best known for “The Odd Couple” and “Quincy M.E.” The show also featured performances by folk singer Catie Curtis, singer-satirist Roy Zimmerman and comedian Marc Maron.
The event, which featured interviews with citizens who fought court battles to preserve separation of church and state in their home communities, was simulcast to movie theaters in 37 cities and was later made available on DVD.
As issues relating to access to birth control, gay rights, marriage equality and the rights of transgender people became prominent, Lynn led AU in stepping up its activism in this area. In March of 2016, AU organized a rally outside the Supreme Court the day Zubik v. Burwell, a case dealing with access to birth control, was argued. Lynn spoke to the crowd and did some media interviews.
During his many years at Americans United, Lynn was much in demand as a speaker. Known for his powerful oratory, he often addressed chapters of Americans United and meetings of allied organizations, including education groups, women’s rights organizations, LGBTQ rights groups, humanist societies, religious denominations and others. As a member of the clergy, Lynn was especially energized when speaking from the pulpit. (Several times a year, he was also called upon to officiate at weddings – including his own daughter’s.)
Two of the largest rallies Lynn addressed were connected with feminist groups. He spoke at the Feminist Expo in Baltimore in 2000 before a crowd of more than 7,000. In April of 2004, Lynn was one of just a handful of male speakers allocated time to address the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., a rally that drew more than one million attendees. (Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Fund, once said of Barry, “When he speaks, I take notes.”)
Lynn’s work was also recognized with several awards during his time at Americans United. In 2013, he received the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. The award is given annually by the Puffin Foundation and the Nation Institute to “an individual who has challenged the status quo through distinctive, courageous, imaginative, and socially responsible work of significance.”
Lynn also received the Freedom of Worship Award from the Roosevelt Institute in 2011 and the American Humanist Association’s Religious Liberty Award in 2009.
While all of this was going on, Lynn also managed to find the time to write two books – Piety & Politics (2006) and God & Government (2015), as well as coauthor a third, First Freedom First, published in 2008 with Welton Gaddy. Among God & Government’s fans was the comedian Lewis Black, who observed in a cover blurb, “With intelligence, wisdom, humanity and a devilish wit, Lynn makes the issues come alive, and thereby we all become wiser.”
What happens next? With Lynn headed off to a well-deserved retirement, AU’s Board of Trustees is already hard at work to find a new executive director for Americans United. The board has engaged the services of an executive search firm, and is in the process of undertaking a national search.
“For 25 years, Barry has been a force of nature. He worked overtime revitalizing Americans United by traveling the country, speaking, writing, testifying before Congress, debating opponents of church-state separation in the media and overseeing AU’s budget and growth,” said the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, president of AU’s Board of Trustees. “He has earned his retirement. Yet I know that Barry has a passion for social justice, and he’ll remain involved in these issues and in others that are so important to him.”
“Activism is built into my DNA,” he said. “I will remain involved in the battle to preserve the church-state wall and other issues that mean so much to me. But I’ll also find time to pursue my hobbies, spend time with my family, travel and – who knows? – maybe pen some memoirs.”