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Barry Lynn is on the front lines defending our right to a separate church and state



These days, the Rev. Barry Lynn is logging more miles than a presidential candidate.

The executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is not only getting a lot of face time on national television and rubbing elbows with the likes of Oliver North and Jerry Falwell, he's flogging his new book, Piety & Politics: The Right Wing Assault on Religious Freedom.

As an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and a former attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, Lynn is in the thick of the culture wars, battling the Christian right in court on a number of "faith-based initiative" cases, in which public money allegedly is going to private institutions to proselytize the Christian way of thinking.

He was in town last week for speaking engagements with Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry on Sunday and Americans United the next evening. The first engagement was cancelled when Lynn found himself snowed in at Washington, D.C. But he made the Monday evening address -- "God and Government: A Fiery Mix" -- at the Circular Congregational Church and had lunch with a group of local clergy. In between, he sat down with City Paper for a chat.

CP: Tell me a little about yourself. You're with the United Church of Christ.

Lynn: I'm with the United Church of Christ, but I'm also an attorney, which means I can forgive you one day and sue you the next day. I've been director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State for a little over 15 years. Americans United is an organization that was founded 60 years ago in order to make sure there was a high wall between government activities and religious institutions, as a way to protect both. Government doesn't make theological judgments, has no expertise, no right in our Constitution; on the other hand, the Constitution doesn't allow the government to overregulate or restrain the activities of religious groups. So it's a good mix and a good relationship, the best relationship that you can find in a world between institutions of government and those of religion and it's found right here in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

CP: What brings you to Charleston?

Lynn: I travel all over the country to try to make clear that there really are people in every state who care very much about the principles of religious freedom, about the separation of church and state, and they want to find ways to do something about it. Americans United is the only organization that works full time on separation of church and state issues...

We try to let people understand the connections (between) so many of the issues of controversy today -- women's rights, reproductive choice, gay rights -- all tend to have as a connector the fact that there is a religious group -- the so-called religious right -- which opposes progress in these areas and would like to have the government actually dictate the moral choices Americans can make in what should be intimate, private matters.

CP: What did we miss in your not being here last night?

Lynn: It's actually almost a dramatic presentation. (Laughs). It requires props, which I don't have. It's all to take a look at the hypocrisy in the religious right, to look at their all-encompassing sense that they know the answers to everything, that if we just listen to them more, we would understand the world the way they believe it exists. And if we don't go along with them voluntarily, they will be happy to have government get in the business of promoting pieces of legislation that will make us do what they want us to do. I sometimes say these are people who are interested in directing our life from the moment of conception until the moment of death. And two years ago we learned that they wanted to define when that moment of death would be permitted to be in the Mrs. Terri Schiavo case. And in the interim between conception and death, they pretty much like to tell us what to do every minute in between -- what books to read, what films we should be able to see. They have an all-encompassing agenda of restraint over the moral decision-making that ought to be a part of every American's life and is, in fact, guaranteed under our Constitution.

CP: [Author and civil libertarian] Wendy Kaminer says there are no more radical Christians today than there were a few decades ago, but they are better organized and they are more gerrymandered into strongly Republican districts than they were before. That was her explanation for the culture wars. How do you address that?

Lynn: There's certainly not much growth in the religious right. That's the good news, from my perspective. On the other hand, they are 18 percent of the American electorate, which gives them an extraordinary amount of power, particularly in Republican primaries, where they have the capacity to bring out a huge number of people -- literally, in some cases, to bus them from a church parking lot to the polls, so they can all vote for whoever has been chosen to be the best candidate in the primary by certain religious leaders.

Your own Roberta Combs, here in South Carolina, who is head of the Christian Coalition ... still puts out voting guides, which always make the Democrat look like the next Idi Amin and the Republican look like Mother Theresa; so they are highly skewed, deliberately so, in order to provide a basis for voting Republican at all times. They have a right to put those voter guides out; many of us do not feel they have a right, however, to ask tax-exempt churches and religious institutions to pass them out. That violates the tax laws and this is a continuing debate that I have with Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, in general.

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