It was a night to celebrate, a night to make new friends and reconnect with old ones and, ultimately, a night to remember.
A crowd of more than 400 Americans United members, chapter activists, allies, friends and others gathered at the National Geographic Society in the heart of Washington, D.C., Nov. 2 to celebrate Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn on the occasion of his retirement and mark the 70th anniversary of Americans United.
Rabbi David Saperstein, the former director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom as well as a longtime friend of Lynn’s, led off with a celebratory toast as guests finished enjoying a buffet meal.
Attendees had come together to fête the work of Lynn and Americans United. While the mood was definitely celebratory, it was also bittersweet because the event marked Lynn’s departure from professional activism.
That dichotomy was perhaps best summed up by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who observed, “I gotta say, I’m somewhat ambivalent about the whole occasion – not the 70th anniversary part, that’s cool. … But Barry Lynn, what’s up, man? Have you noticed what’s going on out there? And you’ve chosen now to retire?”
Continued Raskin, “Barry Lynn has been absolutely essential and indispensable to upholding really our central, foundational constitutional value. Our constitution was built by people who wanted to break from centuries of religious warfare between the Catholics and the Protestants that was every bit as bloody as the warfare today between the Sunni and the Shia. … They wanted to break from inquisition, and holy crusades and witchcraft trials and build government on the principle of reason and allow everybody to worship privately in a system of religious toleration, and nobody has fought harder for that principle than Barry Lynn in our lifetime.”
Other speakers saluted Lynn for his years in the trenches fighting for religious freedom.
“Whether testifying before Congress or in debate in hostile territory, Barry often played the role of a butt-kicking paladin, walking into difficult circumstances with ease – a Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other, a G-rated version of Elmer Gantry,” Wade Henderson, past president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said. “Barry was great at poking holes in hypocrisy. He’d often leave his opposition all but decimated. His knowledge was broad, so whether the topic was the federal marriage amendment, opposition to school vouchers or federally funded employment discrimination, Barry used an artful blend of substance, humor and incisive wit that made him a regular on TV cable news and in the nation’s top publications. ”
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood (who spoke by video), told the crowd, “He has gone toe-to-toe with Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell – no idea or person has been too crazy for Barry to debate. Barry’s been taking on the Religious Right since before it was cool.
“The need for a strong wall of separation between church and state is woven into the fabric of almost every major issue of our times,” Richards continued. “So-called religious freedom is now being used to deny women access to reproductive healthcare, deny services to LGBT folks and [furnish] the excuse for Trump administration guidelines that would allow discrimination against religious minorities, women, LGBT people, non-theists and almost anyone else. Barry, we’re going to miss you. We’ll continue to fight the good fight, but it is not going to be the same without you at AU.”
Terry O’Neill, immediate past president of the National Organization for Women, saluted Barry for his years of service.
“For 25 years, Barry has done the hard work of making the First Amendment’s twin guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom from religion a reality in the everyday lives of people across the country,” O’Neill said.
The evening also featured a big dose of entertainment. Comedian and social critic Lewis Black, who served as master of ceremonies, was a gala highlight. Employing language that was a little bit colorful at times, Black blasted the Donald Trump administration, calling Kellyanne Conway “the person you hire when you want to get rid of your daughter’s cheerleading rival” and saying of Steve Bannon: “Why would you listen to somebody who looks like how I feel when I have a hangover?”
Folk singers Mary Gauthier and Catie Curtis also performed solo numbers, and came together at the end of the gala for a stirring rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”
The gala also featured the debut of two videos – one celebrating Barry and the other focusing on the achievements of Americans United. The videos featured comments by U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.); radio talk show host John Fugelsang; political commentator and author Bill Press; Suhag A. Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation; Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League; Hilary O. Shelton, director of the Washington office of the NAACP; Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation; and others.
Following the tributes, Lynn took the stage himself to offer remarks and recall some of the great church-state battles he has fought since 1992.
“So I am retiring,” Lynn said. “I am going to devote the first month of my retirement to more consistent rocking – and yes, diaper-changing – of my three-month-old twin granddaughters, whose parents are here tonight. Then, I will be looking for things to do in our community, to, in some small way, help America bend toward greatness.
“There is a story in the program book about me that concludes with a comment former Attorney General Ramsey Clark made at an event in New York as he was introducing me: ‘Barry is a young man who I think has signed on to the long haul for social justice.’ Those words always came back to me when I thought, maybe I should get out of this work. Ramsey’s observation was a more polite version of a comment a high school student made to me: ‘I’d really like to have a job like yours.’ I asked why, and he said, ‘You actually get paid to piss people off.’”
Concluded Lynn, “I have always tried to tell the truth – even in this time of ‘fake news,’ of lies and deceptions at the highest levels of government. And all of you, tell that same truth. One great thing about the First Amendment, and the freedom of speech and conscience that it preserves, is that although it does not guarantee that the nation makes the right decisions, it’s the best mechanism in the world to make that kind of rational and morally sound decision-making possible. I want to thank you all for coming, and I want to thank you for all that you do in conjunction with Americans United in your own organizations and in support of the principles that the Constitution holds dearly. Thanks so much. I’ll see you later.”
The Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, president of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, who kicked off the event with introductory remarks, told Church & State that Lynn’s long tenure has been crucial to the organization’s success.
“When Eleanor Roosevelt met with the founder of Americans United 70 years ago, she said that we’ll have to fight this battle for church-state separation over again in every generation,” Jones remarked. “For a generation – 25 years to be exact – Barry Lynn has been a steady, courageous and vigilant sentinel of the wall of separation, and as a result, freedom of conscience has thrived in America. It is now up to the next generation to take its turn in the unending defense of religious freedom.”
Added Jones, “We’re sorry to see Barry go, but we also know that his retirement is well earned, and he leaves AU in great shape for the next 70 years.”
The AU gala was made possible by the support of the organization’s many members and friends. Various levels of sponsorship were available. AU Trustee Eddie Tabash provided Champions-level sponsorship (the highest level), as did Murray Garnick and Teresa Blaxton. Advocates-level sponsorship was provided by Max and Elaine Appel; Freedom From Religion Foundation; Charley Kearns and Frank Ching; Open Society Foundation; AU Trustee Chuck Smith; and Thrive Marketing Group.
Dozens of other groups and individuals gave support at Activists and Partners levels. Thanks to all of them!