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Barry Lynn looks back on 25 years of separating church and state

The Rev. Barry Lynn speaks at a rally outside the Supreme Court on March 23, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of AU

(RNS) After a quarter-century, the Rev. Barry Lynn is retiring as head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In court, in congressional hearings and on cable television, Lynn has led the fight against school-sponsored prayer, religious symbols on public property and any law that allows government to privilege people of faith.

Lynn, 68, is an attorney but his audience is often more curious about his other credential, that of an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. As executive director of Americans United, he sought to vanquish what he calls the “twin evils”: the fundamentalism that insists on a literal reading of the Bible, and the originalism that interprets the Constitution only through the eyes of its framers.

RNS sat down with Lynn to talk about his career in the public eye, and the future under a president who seems eager to scale the wall dividing government and religion.

The Rev. Barry Lynn in 2010. Photo courtesy of AU

You spent your entire career arguing for the separation of church and state, and you’re a minister. That has to have given you some powerful credibility.

I was invited a couple of Easters ago to an atheists’ convention in Salt Lake City, and told them: “OK, I’m different. And it’s not just about ordination. It’s because I have this sock monkey.” The sock monkey is in the shape of a devil and I told them it represents the two things the religious right hates the most: Satan and evolution. It was a very well-received speech. I had a guy write to me afterwards. He said, “Who would have thought going to an atheists’ convention and I’d be most moved by a preacher.”

I never hide my ordination, but if it’s not relevant, it doesn’t come up. In the newspapers sometimes they do mention my ordination, sometimes they don’t. Fox News always refers to me as “Reverend.”

What makes you different from people who share your views but say they can’t engage with biblical literalists or constitutional originalists?

I’m willing to deal with them because I believe that you find within this group — and they’re a huge interest group — elements of commonality and common sense.

I’ve debated (conservative Christian attorney) Jay Sekulow many, many times and I once asked him about the death penalty. He said, “I’m totally against it.” I said “Why?” He said “moral grounds,” and I asked him if he would say that publicly. He said “sure” and I said let’s make a little video together tomorrow on it. So he borrowed (televangelist) Pat Robertson’s studio and we did. I consider him a friend.

Sometimes you can appeal to people’s fundamental sense of fairness. I think that’s why you see religious right conservatives are not very involved in trying to repeal marriage equality. Once in a while you make a breakthrough.

You count some victories in the fights against public school-sponsored prayer and teaching creationism in public schools. But you’re still very concerned about school vouchers. Why?

I don’t want to make it illegal for people to home-school their children but I think it’s not a good idea. If you go to a private school, and you’re using private money, and you’re the parents, you can kind of do what you want. But (Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos’ idea of just throwing money at school vouchers or tuition tax credits is horrible. It will help to destroy public education, the major institution where we learn to get along with other kinds of people.

Does public education work perfectly? No. And can private schools teach us to get along with each other? I taught at a private Catholic school in Boston for three years. It was the archdiocese’s determination that they were going to hire some non-Catholic teachers, like me. And they were going to integrate before the public schools were required to integrate. And it was a magnificent experience.

The Rev. Barry Lynn speaks at the ACLU in 2008. Photo courtesy of AU

What is the state of religious freedom in this country? 

I think we have a dizzying level of religious freedom in this country, particularly if you’re in the religious majority. And Republicans say, “No, we don’t.” But when you look at the examples they use today, they’re ancient, or just not true.

But you have to be consistent. In the case of a child who was not allowed to read the Bible on a school bus, if the family had called us instead of the conservative group they did call, we would have written the same letter on that child’s behalf. There was a school in California that had as part of its homework assignment to memorize prayers from the Quran. And that’s wrong. Imagine some teacher required public school students to get the Lord’s Prayer right and come in and recite it?

What was your upbringing like in Bethlehem, Pa.?

Religion was very important in our family. I went to church all the time. I prepared for Sunday school classes. And my parents liked that.

My father worked for Bethlehem Steel and he sold slab and stone. He was pretty rock-ribbed Republican until they got into these social issues. Although he probably was pretty conservative on them personally, he didn’t understand why his Republican Party needed to talk about abortion. We went to an Evangelical and Reformed church and it joined with the Congregational Christian Churches when the merger occurred to form the United Church of Christ.

What’s your spiritual life like today?

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn has served as executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State since 1992. Photo courtesy of Tim Ritz

I pray. I take the rituals of religion very seriously and I take the questions raised by it more seriously: Is there a purpose to the universe? There doesn’t have to be something. Why is there anything? I always tell humanist groups, I am not here to convert you, I’m just here to tell you that if we have to figure whether God exists in order to save the Constitution, it will be dead and we’ll still be arguing about God in 2,000 years.

I try to have eclectic religious experiences. I do have a church I am a member of, a UCC church. I’m not here in Washington a lot of weekends but it gives me a chance to spend some time at churches in other places, speaking or preaching at them, or just being there. I do like a good gospel church.

You don’t lead a church but you seem to preside at a fair amount of weddings.

I love doing weddings. I did one this weekend at a Presbyterian church in Western Pennsylvania for my niece. I’ve done very eclectic weddings where people had varying degrees of interest in having spiritual content. But I have to talk to you. I have to know you to do your wedding. If I get a call and you say “I haven’t seen you for five years, I’m getting married on Saturday, would you do the service?,” the answer is no. Clergy get to choose. It’s an absurd claim that people would be forced to marry gay couples.

Foy Valentine, then-president of AU’s Board of Trustees, welcomes the Rev. Barry Lynn to AU in 1992. Photo courtesy of AU

Do you have a favorite Bible verse?

I do like James and I do like the paraclete’s saying in the Gospel of John, which is my favorite gospel. It’s about Jesus meeting with the disciples and they’re having a final meal and it’s clear that he’s going to be arrested and people are all upset about it. And he says, “You know, I may be leaving, but the Comforter, the Holy Spirit will come after me.”

It’s the promise of an ongoing revelation of God to humanity. That’s what the revelation of John is about. The United Church of Christ has embraced that Gracie Allen quote: “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.”

How are you feeling about the issues you care about given the victory of President Trump, whose approach to church and state so often conflicts with yours?

There are some signs that the climate in Washington has engendered some real and genuine momentum in the electorate. I am happily surprised at the number of people that are showing up at demonstrations, starting with the Women’s March on Jan. 21.

Another thing that the election of Trump demonstrated is that it’s not enough to register people to vote. You have to get them to the polls.

I can’t predict the future but I think there will be some dramatic changes in the midterm elections. I am very optimistic about the trends in millennial thinking — the acceptance of evolution, the acceptance of science, and marriage equality. For the average millennial it just isn’t even an issue anymore. These are things that are a sign of a better future.

The Rev. Barry Lynn accepts the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship at the Nation Institute annual gala in New York City on Dec. 9, 2013. Photo courtesy of John Munson

What are you going to do next?

My daughter is having twins and my wife and I are going to help with them, our first grandchildren.

I have an idea for a weekend radio show involving musicians. There are a lot of songwriters who have very powerful social messages. So I’d have them on. I’m not leaving the planet, or even the country. But I think it’s important that institutions that work on issues respect the fact that new generations have to take the leadership or the entity is less likely to survive.

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

19 Comments

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  • As someone who knew and worked with Barry years ago, I am sorry to see him retiring. His has been a strong, needed voice for religious liberty and our endangered constitutional church-state separation, especially now that the White House and much of Congress and state governments have fallen into the hands of guys unfriendly to religious freedom, church-state separation, public education, women’s rights of conscience on reproductive health issues, environmental,science, etc. Barry came to Americans United at one of its low points and put it back on track. (I write as a former editor of AU’s Church & State magazine years before Barry took the reins.) Thanks, Barry, for your years of important work. — Edd Doerr

  • There was a school in California that had as part of its homework assignment to memorize prayers from the Quran. And that’s wrong.Imagine some teacher required public school students to get the Lord’s Prayer right and come in and recite it?

    In the context of a non-sectarian class on the history of religions, I don’t see any big difference between memorizing a prayer of a certain religion, and memorizing key scriptural texts, phrases, or teachings of a certain religion. If one learns (or “memorizes”) the Surah Al-Fatiha (the first chapter of the Qur’an, containing just seven verses), then you are learning (memorizing) a key Islamic prayer.

  • Public school students may study ABOUT religions, objectively and neutrally, but they should never be required to memorize any prayers of any tradition.

  • Do you mean (a) memorization of prayers should never be done; or (b) memorization of prayers should be allowed, but never made compulsory? (All of this, of course, is in the context of a class on the history or sociology of religion.)

  • Public school kids should NEVER be required in school to memorize any tradition’s prayers. Public schools must remain religiously neutral. I write, BTW, as a former public school history teacher. — Edd Doerr

  • No. Students at that level should be mature enough to resist indoctrination. But, having studied comparative religion at the college level, I see no reason why students should ever be even asked to memorize prayers. — Edd Doerr

  • How about memorizing, say, the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Bodhisattva Vow, or the Shema?

  • Why bother? One can study religion in college without memorizing prayers or other bits and pieces. One can study chemistry without memorizing the periodic table. — ED

  • Funny story.

    My father used to teach high school chemistry. One time he gave a test on the periodic table. There was a giant poster if it behind him. Plain as day for anyone willing to look up from the page. There were still some C- grades from students sitting in the front of the room.

  • “I don’t want to make it illegal for people to home-school their children but I think it’s not a good idea. If you go to a private school, and you’re using private money, and you’re the parents, you can kind of do what you want. But (Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos’ idea of just
    throwing money at school vouchers or tuition tax credits is horrible. It will help to destroy publiceducation, the major institution where we learn to get along with other kinds of people.”

    Barry Lynn should do a little better research before he goes spouting off about Betsy DeVos’ proposed alternatives to public schools “help(ing) to destroy public education, the major institution where we learn to get along with other kinds of people.”

    Vouchers and tuition tax credits only use a portion of the annual per-student allotment that state governments spend to support public schools. The rest stays in the system and adds to the corruptive influence of teachers unions. You know them: They’re the great folks who REALLY run–and benefit most from–federal and state government dollars spent for public education!

    And as for his statement about “learn(ing) to get along with other kinds of people,” that seldom includes the Christian and Jewish students!

  • Barry Lynn is spot-on. Sabelotodo no sabe nada. Betsy DeVos has a long record of working and pouring money into efforts to undermine public schools, religious liberty and church-state separation. DeVos’s efforts have been defeated three times by Michigan voters by an average 2 to 1 margin in 1970, 1978 and 2000. She and Trump and Pence are toxic to the underfunded public schools that serve 90% of our kids. As for teacher unions, they are what keep teachers from abandoning an underappreciated and underpaid profession. — Edd Doerr

  • My maloDDOERRous friend, your ABSOLUTE HATRED of President Trump and his policies is showing rather badly! Wise up!

    In vez de el boniga que Ud. habia dicho aqui, Sabelotodo bien sabe muchas cosas de que Ud. no tiene ningun idea! (Tanslation for our half-way intelligent readers who don’t know Spanish: “Instead of the bull (crap) you’ve said here, this Know-It-All guys well knows lots of things about which you haven’t ANY idea!

    Yes, the publics schools are underfunded, but it’s NOT because of homeschooling, vouchers and the like. They’re underfunded because of their miserably bad track record of educating kids! Smart partents, poor as well as the ones who are better off, are seeking for their kids a much better education through private and parochial schools, and the options we have in contention here.

    Teachers would stay put a lot longer WITHOUT their membership in teachers unions! Currently union-teachers would have more dollars in their paychecks–dollars that constitute the bloated salaries and BONUSES of teachers union bosses!

    As I’ve said, WISE UP!
    .

  • The anonymous Sabelotodo’s ignorant rambles simply demonstrate his being out of touch with reality. His uninformed attack on public schools ignores the fact that the annual Gallup/PDK education polls for many years have shown that 70% of Americans regularly give an A or B rating to the public school attended by their oldest child. This despite the fact that between 2008 and 2016 35 states have cut per student public school funding by an average of 7% while some states have increased the diversion of public funds to special interest, mainly sectarian, private schools, ignoring the fact that in 28 state referenda from coast to coast between 1966 and 2014 voters have rejected all such gimmicks by 2 to 1. Sabenada’s (KnowNothing’s) rant against teacher unions ignores the fact that the states with the strongest teacher unions have the best public schools. — Edd Doerr

  • We’ll let the SMART readers of Slingshot, be the judge of who knows beans about the big causes of low performance of kids attending public schools, and their partent’s search better for alternatives!

  • You are exactly what Barry is talking about: an enemy of public schools. You don’t really know much about public schools or the value of the institution through our history….Cliff Hill

  • Cliff (Claven?) my UNION-LOVING adversary, let me tell you how big of “an enemy of public schools,” and how (little) I know “about public schools, and the value of the institution throughout our history:”

    After earning a Bachedlors and TWO masters degrees in education. then undertaking additional postgrad work at Stanford University in educational psychology (later called “cognitive psychology”) I enjoyed a successful career in public education, spending several years there as a teacher, debate coach and principal. After that, I spent some time as an adjunct professor at Denver University, then I helped my goddaughters’ family create a “special interests and enrichment activities” program for the other parents and kids in their homeschooling group.

    I became a part of the business community, and after a distinguished career as a company manager, I went on to spend 25 years as an independent management consultant, focusing on leadership development and the big challenge of sustaining an ethical corporate climate with all company stakeholders in the midst of stiff competition from corrupt peer companies!

    Tell us, Cliff, what are YOUR credentials, concerning public school education??

    As I responded to eddoer elsewhere here, “We’ll let the SMART readers of Slingshot, be the judge of who knows beans about the big causes of low performance of kids attending public schools”

    Claven, if you respond further, you’ll just be making an even BIGGER public display of your ignorance!

  • 1) Great to hear that the Rev. Lynn’s group would have defended the girl who got in trouble for reading her Bible on the school bus. But they don’t exactly publicize that they are interested in taking on that type of religious liberty case, do they?

    2) Almost every day, I drive past an Chinese Assembly of God church, a Hindu temple, and a spiritualist church — all within about .25 of a mile on the same street. This is in a midwestern city with a metro area population of 1.7 million. They have coexisted beside each other for at least five years. There are also several mosques, Jewish synagogues, other Hindu and Buddhist temples, a humanist society, and other religious groups with which I’m probably not familiar. There have been no examples of vandalism or violence against non-Christians here. Sounds like a decent place for non-Christians to live.

  • Barry Lynn being a “Reverend” is like naming an arsonist to be a Fire Chief! This country was founded on the idea of RELIGIOUS FREEDOM which is why the very First Amendment of our Constitution deals with FREEDOM OF RELIGION! It is government that is NOT allowed to interfere or restrict religion NOT the other way around! Lynn is an enemy of God hiding behind the very God that he hates to erode the worship of that same God. Learn world and American history people before you start following these hateful anti-God Pied Pipers to your own damnation.

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