This is point of inquiry for Monday, September 21st, 2015.
Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He’s here to talk about his new book, God and Government. Twenty five years of fighting for equality, secularism and Freedom of Conscience. Barry, welcome to the program.
It’s nice to be back.
Lindsay, we’ve decided to become a minister. Did you expect to become the most visible proponent of church state separation in America?
No, I certainly did not.
And I do think that it’s unusual for ministers to take as hard line as I do about religion and about how it needs to govern itself. And it also needs to support itself. And it shouldn’t be expecting other people to do the work that we ought to be doing ourselves if we’re a religious person. So I never expected this. I had no intention of this at all. Kind of fell into my lap. But I certainly have enjoyed spending the last 25 years, which I think is a quarter century, doing what I consider good work.
And how did that come about? How did you end up going down that path? The church, the activism?
When I was in college, I was very active against the Vietnam War and pro civil rights.
I marched with Dr. King and participated in many, many anti-war activities. But it was not until my junior year in college that I realized the power of religion to do bad things. I had a roommate at the time who was planning to go to England on spring vacation, and I asked him what he was doing. He said, I’m going to London. I said, well, that sounds like fun. And he said, Not really. And I said, What do you mean by that? And he explained that a woman he was friendly with was now pregnant and that they were going to need to get an abortion. And I thought, why can’t you go to New York? Why can’t you go to Boston? Why can’t you go to some liberal city in the United States and found out that the Catholic Church at the time had so much power that they could prevent making a reproductive choice like abortion? And this was even before Roe versus Wade. And it’s started me to think, is this really the kind of power we ought to be giving to a private organization to impose its own religious views on everyone, whether they liked it or not? My answer was no. And I thought, I better learn about this. I did. And then had an opportunity both at the ACLU and now for the last 24 years at Americans United. To do something about it.
What would you say is the most pressing church, the separation issue that we’re facing in the country today?
I think it’s something you might put it in the category of moral inertia.
We are beginning to become accepting of things that even 50 years ago would have been unthinkable. For example, the faith based OLT based initiative started by George Bush continued and even growing under President Obama still allows government funds tax dollars to go to religious organizations without many strings attached. And the biggest string, the real rope that throttles the integrity of even this in theory, is that it allows you to use government money to discriminate in the hiring for positions that are federally funded, which means tax dollar funded. The president vowed when he was a candidate back in 2008 he would get rid of this. He has not done so. So today we have this oddity where the president, to his credit, a year ago or so, announced that if you got a government grant or a contract, you could not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. However, ironically, today, you can still discriminate with those government dollars against Jews, against atheists, against anybody. That doesn’t happen to follow your own theological beliefs. And that is a stain on the integrity of the civil rights record of this administration. The president has refused to change it. And that’s a great shame.
Does not extend to policing the private behavior of people who work for religious faith based organizations. Say you work for a soup kitchen that doesn’t condone sex outside of marriage for religious reasons and you get pregnant.
Can they fire you for that under the understanding this administration has?
They can fire you for that because it is simply an imposition of a religious or theological test on the conduct of an employee and whether the employee is paid privately or through a government grant. The answer seems to be, unfortunately, yes.
You can still be fired, but you can’t be discriminated against on the grounds of being gay. Can they turn that around and say, well, we’re not discussing. Yes, you for being a gay person. We’re discriminating against you for having gay sex.
You could do that. And one of the many things that bothers me about this preposterous way the law is being interpreted is that this anti gay bias can easily be transformed, covered up by some religious facade. I think we should get over this idea that if you’re not comfortable with working with somebody, that’s okay if it’s federally funded or state funded. This is a comfort level. This is not a constitutional standard. And in fact, back in the old days of the desegregation starting to happen in the South and people would say, well, we don’t mind, you know, eating with black people, but we kind of would like them in another half of the restaurant. This started out as an argument in the 1970s about men becoming flight attendants. And big airlines said, well, you know, we can’t really do that because so many of our business travelers at the time, which is statistically true, are men and they’re just more comfortable being served by women in skirts. You know, those ideas should be relegated to the ash heap of history. And instead, it appears, again, in the guise of the faith based initiative. If you sign a document and you want to discriminate and you can come up with some cockamamie reason for why this is essential to performing your religious mission, you can get away with it.
Do you have any sense of why President Obama changed his mind and reversed his course from his campaign promise?
You know, I only have some inkling of that certainly in efforts to have this addressed in the White House. Frequently you hear that there are oh well, the bishops come over here all the time. And I know that he’s concerned that World Vision, who’s, you know, does this anti-poverty work around the world? World Vision does not want to change in the policy. World Vision has said that because they tell people in advance that they only hire Christians, it’s obviously not bigotry. They say we tell people in advance we won’t hire them. I mean, it’s a little bit like telling Rosa Parks, you say Ms. Parks, you know, we told you in advance you bought the tickets. You have to sit in the back of the bus. And if you don’t do it, don’t blame us. Don’t call us bigots. Well, it was bigotry then. And World Vision is engaged in bigotry now. And your money and my money is helping them do it. And that is a shame.
Why does the huge Tels with all the rock stars?
I don’t think there are too many rock stars associated with World Vision, but they do a lot of commercials. They do a lot of commercial advertising on the networks and on on local stations. They’re very well heeled. And I think that they frankly, I can approve this, but I agree. Pretty sure it’s true. They go and they make the same kind of threat that Catholic Social Services sometimes makes to mayors, including the mayor of Washington, D.C. Just about two years ago, they said, you know, if you force us to hire people we don’t like, you force us to give benefits to people we prefer not to. We will take our social services out of your community. And that’s what they threatened to do here in Washington. Catholic Charities, which receives a vast amount of its money from tax dollars, not from private contributors, said we’ll just we’ll leave. We’ll leave Washington, D.C.. I can’t think of a moral standard. I sure never learn one in theology school that justifies taking all of your marbles away from the poor and then deciding to move them elsewhere where you don’t have to obey the law of the city or county in which you’re operating.
It’s just I really can’t see Jesus say, nope, sorry, leper’s. Not today. I am not going to hell. You are mad at somebody.
Yeah, no, I just I can’t believe that either. There’s so many things I can’t imagine. Jesus. And historical Jesus saying that would be among them. I also cannot imagine him saying, oh by the way, I know that this law that says I have to actually serve food at your wedding or let you stay in my bed and breakfast, but you really are. I’m not sure I believe you. I don’t know that I trust you. You might be gay. Jesus never even talked about being gay. He never criticized that early theologians like Paul did. But Jesus never mentioned this any more than he mentioned abortion. Abortion isn’t even mentioned in the Bible except to suggest in the Old Christian Old Testament that it’s not as bad as murder. So when the religious right says abortion is murder, I ask him to prove it. And all they can do is come up with some poetry from the Psalms of Jeremiah to prove it. It’s not there. You know, the other thing that bothers me a great deal and I suspect troubles many of your listeners is the fact that we have churches endorsing candidates for public office in clear violation of the tax code that says if you’re a five or one, C three, which all churches are, unless they repudiate it. You get it automatically. They’re not supposed to endorse or oppose any candidate for public office. But we have been filing dozens and dozens of complaints about religious institutions that violate that provision of the tax code. And for a while, they were being investigated. And then about five years ago, one federal judge said, well, we can’t really do these investigations anymore. We just need to change one sentence in the regulations of the IRS.
So there was rule making, which is the technical way to say ask everybody for their opinion. That occurred about four years ago. It requires a change of a single sentence, a single sentence. They still have not managed to change that sentence.
What does it need to change to?
Well, it needs to be changed because they changed the position in the IRS of the people that started. Used to be a regional director and now it’s something else. And they just needed to change the title of the position.
So basically, they don’t have the resources because it’s not authorized to do the investigations.
Well, they have the resources. They just don’t. They didn’t change one sentence. And by not changing the Senate.
So they can’t do the investigation.
Well, that’s. That’s correct. They cannot do the investigations. And it doesn’t look like they’re really too eager to do them either because they haven’t changed this one simple sentence. I think I know what gets in the way of this.
And I think it’s that the IRS and its alleged attack on conservative groups, which is mainly fictional of the social welfare organizations, are five oh one C forces, as they’re technically known, has embarrassed the administration. And I don’t think the administration wants to get into a battle where it appears to be taking the side of the Internal Revenue Service against churches or charities. And it’s an embarrassment, but it hasn’t been changed. And there’s no evidence that there’s serious work going on at the IRS to change it even as we speak.
This might be kind of an odd question, but what’s your view on whether Scientology deserves IRS protection as a religion?
Well, I Scientology, under the rules, as we understand them today, the only way that you can go after Scientology is to demonstrate that the people who run it do not actually believe what they’re saying.
It’s not a good thing for the government to investigate. And in fact, it’s precluded by the Constitution really from examining the truth or falsity of a religious claim. However, if you look at something and find it to be fraudulent and this has happened in the past, the IRS goes to the Postal Service, goes after a group and says, you know, you guys who started this group don’t even believe it’s true. So you’re not entitled to any special treatment in the tax code or under the postal system.
And this was a went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in regard to a group called the I Am movement, which basically argued that I can’t say I’m an expert on the theology.
What I remember is you paid a certain amount of money. You got to meet certain saints in certain levels of heaven. And they got in big trouble with the Postal Service and eventually lost the case at the Supreme Court, not because the government said, well, this is crazy, but because they said it’s crazy. And you people who started it don’t even believe it. So it’s a sham.
You’d have to make that argument about Scientology if you’re going to get any legs on removing its tax exemption, which you legally even go about proving that somebody doesn’t believe their stated religious beliefs. I mean, it seems like even legit. I mean, unquestionably, culturally reject religions. People express doubts about faith all the time. And nobody says, oh, you can’t be real. You can’t be a religion anymore.
No. It was very difficult, but it’s not impossible. And I think that it should have been used.
And I think the administration should have used it in regard to Hobby Lobby. This is, of course, the craft store that didn’t want to cover. And one case at the Supreme Court, five to four, indicating that they would not cover contraceptives or at least four kinds of contraceptives in their health insurance plan by an interpretation of something called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was designed for things that had, shall we say, no effect or limited effect on other people, like a Muslim prisoner gets to grow a quarter inch beard. That doesn’t bother too many people. However, what Hobby Lobby said was, look, we’re a for profit company. Yes. But we can exercise religion where a person under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and we can exercise religion. And so we don’t want to cover this and we’re not going to cover it. And of course, a one five to four notwithstanding that in that record of the case, there was not one single comment by one single member of Congress over the two and a half years that this was debated, suggesting that this was supposed to cover companies other than perhaps churches. And certainly never a comment that a covered for profit companies are now even worse. We’ve got nonprofit groups, huge groups, big hospitals, colleges, universities, the University of Notre Dame, for example, that has already been exempted from having to cover contraceptives and insurance policies, but where the government is required to cover for employees or for college or university students, this through a third party provider. Well, Notre Dame says, you know, we can’t be complicit in sin. And even if we signed a statement, I think it’s 750 words long and it says we can’t do this or it’s against our religion that that they say would trigger involvement in a sinful act because that notice that says we can’t in conscience to do that would somehow be submitted somewhere. And that other party, that third party insurer, would pay for the insurance or actually give give it to the student or the employee for free. That’s what the law requires. But to me, this is ridiculous. The idea that such an attenuated connection between what? You think it’s sinful and signing a piece of paper that just acknowledges, you know, in conscience we can’t do that is absurd. When I was fighting as I was an early in my career for conscientious objectors, you had to virtually write a treatise in order to obtain conscientious objector status. You didn’t sign a couple hundred word documents say, yep, I meant I’m one of those people. Give me get me out of the Vietnam War. You had to write a lengthy document explaining in detail, usually citing several religious sources, why you should be exempt from having to go to war. So the difference between that and this one simple document that’s being required of Notre Dame, Wheaton College, Little Sisters of the Poor and all the other groups that have filed lawsuits is remarkably little that’s being asked. Luckily, every circuit that’s considered these, it’s now I think six circuits have said, you know, if you don’t want to sign this document, too bad that’s not an infringement in any substantial way on your ability to practice religion.
I mean, it seems like a Chrisley expansive view of religion that freedom of religion means never having to do anything that you regard as sin.
Well, yeah, or even to sign a paper acknowledging that you won’t do anything sinful. I mean, this to me is so ridiculous.
And I think some of the more conservative judges in these circuits look with shock at this argument coming from huge employers and big non-profits that get vast amounts of government money to boot and say, are you serious that you believe that you can’t sign a paper that says in good conscience you can’t pay it yourself, somebody else has to do it? Ridiculous.
We’ve seen the legal argument would be that large entities like these don’t believe their ostensible religious beliefs being inanimate conceptual objects.
It is it’s a that’s an interesting way to phrase it. I can barely respond. I don’t know.
It’s when you find in the law in general and, you know, in addition to being a minister in the United Church of Christ, I’m also a lawyer and I’m a member of the Supreme Court bar and all that stuff. But I can’t think of a justification in any moral sense or in any theological sense, much less in any legal sense for some of the distinctions that people are trying to do to get out of doing the right thing.
You may recall in Indiana, when they were passing one of these religious freedom bills earlier this year, there was a pizza parlor and it said we wouldn’t mind serving a gay couple if they came into the pizzeria, but we would certainly not be willing to cater their wedding. No, I don’t think anybody asked for that to happen. But so two slices you can do. You can serve 200 slices to cater a pizza at a wedding. You can’t do that again.
Would they have been okay with, say, a pool, a pool party or something like secular gay event?
That’s a very good question. You’d probably have to ask them and they would have to pass some non scriptural provision and come up with an answer.
But I think they’re too busy counting all the money they raised.
Yes, they raised something like nine hundred thousand dollars, which is I’m I can guarantee you, is a lot more than they ever made at the pizzeria in Indiana. Yes. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just raise all that money from some good cause and use it for good things? But yeah, they they used it to become a martyr and then possibly to go on a tour and retire to cause them.
Well, I’m sure that if they liked it, as I understand, it’s a very sinful down there. So I don’t know.
One of my favorite parts of the book is where you talk about you’re sticking up for pagans. And that was obviously something that was really meaningful for you personally. Tell the story to that.
Yeah. I mean, we discovered that Pagans Wickens, which is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the country, was being denied the right to put a pentacle on their grave markers and veterans cemeteries of their husbands or their sons who had been killed in duty.
And we found four people, one woman from the Korean conflict, one from Vietnam, several from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who were denied the right to put a pentacle, which is a five pointed star and a sterkel on the grave markers of their loved ones.
And all kinds of other groups had them. I mean, obviously, baptism, Presbyterians and. But atheists had one. And humanists had one, but they couldn’t get one. So they said, would you try to get us this emblem of honor? And we said, of course. And they’re delightful people. I’ve enjoyed working with them for a long time on a lot of. Shoes, because they are misunderstood and largely viewed unpleasantly by a lot of Americans as our many religious minorities and nonces generally, but they are theists and they are.
We did win when we got through the Freedom of Information Act and through Discovery, which is this effort to find out what’s really going on behind the scenes. We found out that President Bush, Bush number two, had made some statement on Good Morning America where he said those Wickens don’t even deserve the right to meet on a military installation. And that was kind of the smoking gun. And the Justice Department said, you know, honestly, with this, we can’t even we can’t even defend the position of the Veterans Administration.
And so this became an emblem of honor. And we held a press conference with the several other widows and their supporters. And it was a very powerful moment and certainly one of the highlights of the work in the last couple of decades.
Hate mail is a recurring theme in the book. And you’ve dealt with a lot of it over the years. A lot of people in A.P. ism and skepticism are discovering now is that as their careers take off, that there’s a lot of a lot of abuse out there.
What advice do you have for young people just setting out on a controversial career path, dealing with with the onslaught of hate mail likely to get?
Yeah, I mean, hate mail just comes with the territory, but it’s a lot easier to be hateful now that the Internet exists in the old days. You know, you had to be hateful by leaving a voicemail message on some guy’s phone or writing some woman a long hand letter and saying you hated her. But now with the Internet, it’s just easy to say anything about anybody. Nobody knows who you are. Nobody even cares. And a lot of very distasteful stuff comes from this. We have a whole wall in our office. We call it the wall of shame. It’s just these ridiculous, idiotic, hateful comments made about people on my staff and people like myself and people that we associate with. And it is it fills an entire wall. It’s frequently includes I am not embarrassed to say it’s true. I mean, religious citations include some scriptural message which they believe justifies whatever hateful thing they’re about to say to you. And I do think that because I am iciest, some of these people just hate me more than anyone. And they just they despise who I am because I do have theistic beliefs and they can’t deal with that when it comes to people in the humanist and traditional atheist secular movement figure, well, you’re going to hell anyway, right?
But we don’t even have to. Right you. But all my friends in the atheist movement say that now they get huge amounts.
I always say a humanist and atheist conventions. There’s a lot of controversy, as I’m sure you’re aware of. After meetings, you know, the humanist meetings, atheist gatherings there, there are incidents discussed on the Internet about sexism, for example.
And it’s very open. I mean, people talk about it within the community of humanists and atheists and they talk about it and they debate it and they come up with policies. However, of course you do. But, you know, it’s not like it doesn’t happen in the Methodist Church or the Catholic Church. It’s just that they don’t want to talk about it.
They don’t want to be embarrassed by this kind of self reflection and self-criticism. So it’s an unusual thing. But I think it’s an example of how, lest anyone think otherwise, you can be a highly moral actor in this country, in this world, whether you have any religious doctrines behind you or not, you can still be and choose to be that good person.
I was really delighted to see in the book that you are Steve Goodman fan. So am I.
Oh, I love Steve Goodman. And Ford died too soon. But he was a great I lived to see him every time I could.
And I’m a big fan of kind of folky music of that era. It’s one of the things that we’ve done is to create over the past three years a series of fundraisers called Voices United for Separation of Church and State. And again, we don’t care what your belief is. I mean, Roy Zimmerman, who many of your listeners, I’m sure know and love has done things for us. We have people who are nonconventional, spiritual people, as well as a more traditional religious people. And we’ve done a lot of concerts with singers, with comedians.
Sarah Silverman has helped us in a number of cases and is soon doing another benefit for us in Los Angeles. Lewis Black and a lot of terrific people is Winstead, the founder and original writer of Comedy Central. I think most singers and most comedians for some reason do understand that to be sensitive to what the First Amendment is and what it means to protect their rights to speak and the right to look at the whole First Amendment and see that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion is part of it.
The first part of it, I don’t know whether Steve Goodman was personally religious, but I feel like his his songs kind of encompass a moral vision that everybody can be part of for America. I mean, like city of New Orleans. Yeah.
I don’t know I don’t know about his religious background if he had one.
But I think most of the people that if you look at the numbers of people that have been supporting Voices United, they are people with very strong commitments to social justice, very strong commitments to making sure that no one is treated like a second class citizen anywhere in this country. And I think that goes whether they’re spiritual people or not. Dar Williams, who I also quote in the book and have a couple lines from her song called The Christians and the Pagans about it was like the soundtrack of my third year in college.
Well, she you know, I couldn’t I couldn’t find anybody to give me the rights to those four lines because I couldn’t find a publisher that would ever respond. And my publisher insists I find something. So I just wrote to DA and he said, look, I just want to use these four lines. And she said, that’s fine. You know, if anything comes of it, I’ll take care of it.
That’s great. If people want to be part of it, you see some voices, United Talent. Where can they go?
Yeah, well, the I know that we have some events coming up this fall here outside of Washington that my own house, as a matter of fact, we have the wonderful Cheryl Wheeler and a new singer songwriter named Rachel Kilgore, both early adopters, you might say, of marriage equality. They’re gonna be coming and doing a show here. We have a show in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one out in San Francisco, and they’re all up on a Web site called Voices United.
Dot com or going to a you dot org. You can find a place to link to the concerts and maybe occurring in your neck of the woods in the book.
You write that you are convinced that the separationists are ultimately going to win. Why do you think that?
Well, for a couple of reasons. Some things just aren’t seriously litigated anymore. Prayer in the schools. You have to be watchful because you have to be sure that the people who know the law is one way, you know, government’s monitorship prayer in schools. They’re going to try to find ways to sneak it in. And I talk about some of the creative ways they do that in the book. But it’s just not being litigated is not going to. We don’t have to worry about a constitutional amendment to bring prayer back to public schools. I mean, Ted Cruz talked about it, a conference that was out a few months ago and people still applaud it. But it has no legs. It’s not going anywhere. And also creationism. Not only did the lawsuit in Dover, Pennsylvania, that A you participated in the ACLU of Pennsylvania, that Pepper Hamilton law firm, I think we pretty much knocked it out as a legal matter. It’s not that everybody believes or accepts the evidence for evolution, but it is that it’s just not one that people want to litigate anymore.
There is a law in the state of Louisiana that permits individual schools to supplement biology texts in any way they see appropriate. And of course, supplementing biology means teaching intelligent design. Right, which is not either intelligent or science, but it’s just there. And the governor, I’m sure, would be happy if somebody went and taught it in a school. I wanted to add supplemental material involving intelligent design, but then they’re gonna get sued. They’re going to get sued by Americans United and the Louisiana. Civil Liberties Union, we’ve already agreed to do that if we find a plaintiff. We will do that in the event that it occurs.
Listen up about their listeners if you are in Louisiana and you hear anything.
Exactly. And you know, you do. And I mean, we always say this to our clients is sometimes to be a client in a church state case is a very dangerous proposition. You have to have nerves of steel and you have to be willing to take a lot of ostracism then the worst instance of that.
It’s something I talked about mainly in an earlier book.
But when we sued Judge Roy Moore for putting the two and a half ton granite monument in the Alabama Supreme Judicial Building 10 years ago, one of our clients who was a lawyer lost all of her clients and then came back one night from date and found that all of the windows in her home had been blown out by shotgun blasts. So this is ugly, ugly stuff when a religious right comes and is asked to respond to something like the murder of Dr. George Tiller. You know, he hears a religious guy. He was in church at the time of his murder. A guy walks in and kills him, shoots him, and then the people on the religious right say, well, of course, we’re completely pro-life and of course, we oppose any kind of violence. But and then when they say but that pretty much refutes everything they’ve just said because they’re going to come up with something that is nasty, that suggests that the victim deserved it anyway. And that is an awful state of moral discourse. Either you’re in favor of murdering people or you aren’t. But they have a convenient way to avoid you making that consistent judgment. Randall Terry, the guy who founded Operation Rescue and one of the most belligerent anti choice activists in the country.
He briefly left activism to become a country music singer. Unlike people like. Yes, he did. And it was a remarkably unsuccessful. And when he used to do a radio show, I had him on once and I said, Randal, I said, I really am sorry your failed as a country singer, because now I understand you’re coming back to fight for the right of fetuses.
And I said, why is it that you are so concerned about this when in the Christian Bible itself, it clearly prohibits divorce? I mean, there’s no excuse for divorce in the Christian Bible. And Randall had, in fact, been divorced and when it ran away with somebody in the car.
Imagine that. Well well, somebody did not want to be married to Randall Terry. Well, now, that’s Nancy.
I didn’t know him terribly well, but I have to tend to agree with you. I asked him, I said, well, how can you justify your own life in your own divorce? And he said something like, well, you know, we’re all human. We’re all human. Well, that’s not exactly what he says to someone who’s planning to end a pregnancy outside, you know, while he’s standing outside of a clinic to protest on a Saturday morning. That’s not his attitude. And if you really think live and let live, make your own moral judgments, then you have to cover not only your own moral conduct, but that of others and let them do what they want, even if you think what they’re doing is making a horrible mistake. That’s part of what freedom of choice is in this country.
That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thank you. Always a pleasure to talk with you.