April 2016 Church & State - April 2015

Tar Heel Travels: Bringing Some Sense (And Separation) To North Carolina

  Barry W. Lynn

As I write this I’m just back from a week in North Carolina, a state that only six years ago was often viewed as the South’s most progressive place. Something has gone horribly awry. 

 Before I get to that, a quick diversion about my less-than-perfect “travel karma.” I had booked a compact car to be picked up at the Jacksonville, N.C., airport to begin the journey. When I got to the Alamo rental car counter, I was told that there were “no cars of any size” available – and that no other company on the aisle had any cars either.

But no worries! I could have a truck or a minivan that was large enough for a children’s soccer team or an entire hippie commune. I chose the latter and spent the next several days feeling like I was in an episode of “The Partridge Family.”

So, yes, my personal travel did go awry, but what has happened in the Tar Heel State is far worse. I had just finished reading the excellent new book by Jane Mayer called Dark Money before I left for my trip. It’s about the influence of big money on politics, outlining how right-wing organizations and funders from the John Birch Society to the current machinations of the Koch Brothers have altered our electoral landscape.

After laying waste to Congress, these forces moved on to North Carolina, using it as a kind of lab animal for every bad far-right idea. They’ve sought to undermine public education, erode voting rights and gut social services.

In the three cities I visited, I heard an earful about where the state stands.  There’s an effort under way for a hefty increase in the amount of tax funds for private school vouchers – all of which would come from the current public school budget. There may even be a special session of the state legislature to overturn a Charlotte ordinance allowing transgender persons to use whichever bathroom they feel comfortable using.

I started my trip in New Bern, named for Bern, Switzerland. This community is populated by a vast array of bears – statues, signs, stuffed animals – because “bern” is an old Germanic word for “bear.”

There was an impressive turnout at the local Unitarian church. During a book signing after the event, I met some very interesting people, including a former IRS employee who said he first heard of Americans United after reading our complaint letters and press releases about illegal pulpit politicking.

Alas, this fellow wasn’t sure what became of our complaints. They were passed on to higher-ups, who presumably sat on them (although a few warnings were issued). Things seemed to grind to a halt after litigation that forced organizational changes at the IRS.

My next stop was a planning lunch in Raleigh to help build our chapter there. The meal was great Southern fare, and the conversation was engaging. A cadre of folks met that night in a United Church of Christ meeting hall to chat about Americans United, the major priorities and how to get people motivated to influence legislation, educate about the historical roots of separation and other topics.

Hendersonville was my last stop. There at a local library I had a joint appearance with the Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Brent and I share some things in common: We are both ordained and both lawyers. We agree on just about every church-state issue, so I told the crowd that if they wanted to hear some more arguing they should tune into a presidential debate.

I ended up in Charlotte, where I dropped off the minivan. I had been told my gas would be free since they didn’t have the car I wanted. No one had bothered to tell that to the Alamo folks in Charlotte. I’ll admit I got a bit irritated when they insisted I had to pay for the gas. A mini-debate erupted, which I won.

I was supposed to go to Chicago two days later to participate in a candidate forum sponsored by Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He had invited all the presidential candidates and had asked a few of us to come and ask very specific questions, which the candidates would see in advance to avoid “gotcha!” moments.  

With some help from AU’s legislative team, I carefully crafted a question on religiously based job discrimination in groups getting “faith-based” contracts and grants, something President Barack Obama had promised to remove when he was a candidate back in 2008. He hasn’t done that, so we hoped for a better answer from current candidates.

The event was changed into a one-on-one with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and unfortunately my question didn’t come up. But November is eight months off. Maybe we’ll have better luck with questions (and rental cars) in the time to come.

 

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

 

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