When Barry W. Lynn became executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State nearly 20 years ago, he had a vision for the organization’s place in the nation’s public life.
Lynn moved the AU national offices from the suburbs to the heart of Washington, D.C. He built a team of attorneys to influence the course of church-state jurisprudence. He expanded the Legislative Department to more effectively lobby Congress and the state legislatures. He ramped up the Field Department so AU’s chapters and outreach to religious and community groups would be strong.
And Lynn, a veteran of many media appearances, sparked new visibility for AU on television, radio and in print (and eventually the Web as well).
On Oct. 27, allies, associates, staff and friends of AU gathered at Washington’s Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel to kick off a celebration of two decades of Lynn’s leadership.
Radio talk show host and former CNN pundit Bill Press moderated a discussion between Lynn and Eleanor Smeal, founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Lynn and Smeal, who have worked together to fend off various Religious Right schemes over the years, shared their thoughts on a range of issues facing the country today.
The two pontificated on issues ranging from the role of religion in the 2012 presidential campaign, ongoing threats to reproductive rights, the “faith-based” initiative and the state of religious liberty in America today.
After an introduction by Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, president of AU’s Board of Trustees, Press kicked off the discussion by noting that he is a member of Americans United and a longtime friend of Lynn’s.
“If we want to rock the standard when it comes to religious liberty, it’s Thomas Jefferson, it’s James Madison and it’s Barry Lynn,” Press quipped.
Press asked Lynn about the amount of religion in political campaigns. Lynn said he is uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric.
Lynn joked that three presidential contenders say God wants them to be president, noting that this means at least two must be wrong.
“Religion is saturated in this campaign in a way I’ve never seen in the modern history of our country, and it’s a bad thing,” Lynn said.
He added that no candidate today has the courage, as presidential candidate John F. Kennedy did in 1960, to affirm the absolute separation of church and state and vow to not base public policy on religion.
Smeal said she is disturbed by the use of religion to drive public policy, pointing to an effort in Mississippi to curb legal abortion by adopting a constitutional amendment declaring that “personhood” begins at conception.
The situation regarding legal abortion, Smeal said, is “the worst I’ve ever seen.” She added, “There’s a new standard – and that standard is that women don’t count.”
Lynn and Smeal also discussed “dominionism,” a growing movement in the Religious Right whose fundamentalist Christian adherents believe that they have a duty to take “dominion” over government and all other areas of life. Although many in the media dismiss dominionism as an overblown conspiracy theory, Lynn asserted that the movement must be taken seriously.
“It’s literally a takeover of every institution of American government,” Lynn said. “They believe Christians of their sort should have dominion over everyone.”
Lynn and Smeal also deliberated the “faith-based” initiative. Smeal said she doesn’t like the term, considering it a euphemism. She also expressed frustration with lax accountability of taxpayer-funded religious groups.
Lynn added that Americans United has long opposed allowing publicly supported religious groups to engage in discrimination when hiring staff. He noted that one group, World Vision, receives tax support but argues it is allowed to discriminate since it tells potential employees upfront that they must agree with its evangelical outlook.
This, said Lynn, is akin to telling Rosa Parks, “Mrs. Parks, we told you you had to sit at the back of the bus when you bought the ticket, so it’s not discrimination.”
The “Celebrating Twenty Years Of Leadership” event concluded with a staff tribute to Lynn followed by cake and coffee for attendees.
“It’s an honor to celebrate 20 years at the helm of Americans United,” Lynn said. “Protecting the separation of church and state is important work, and as I go about it, I am constantly reminded of those who make it all possible – the members and supporters of Americans United.”