Yesterday was Barry Lynn’s last day as the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He celebrated by having a heart attack. Thankfully, he’s doing okay and receiving good medical care. He has long had a condition called aortic valve stenosis, for which there was no treatment when it was discovered. But there is now. He’s hoping to be transferred to the Cleveland Clinic, which is getting good results in treating it.
Barry has been a stalwart in defending separation of church and state for a quarter of a century. In addition to being a constitutional lawyer, he’s also a Church of Christ minister, so he doesn’t fit into the neat little tribal categories we like to create around contentious political issues. He’s also one of the nicest guys you could ever meet and has shown me nothing but kindness and support for a long time. He will be sorely missed at AU, but thankfully not, it appears, from our lives entirely.
In an interview with the Washington Post looking back at his work at AU, he expresses optimism that church/state separation is advancing, not retreating:
Q: What about overall? If you had to say where things are at today, in terms of church-state separation, compared to when you took over at Americans United in 1992, where are they?
A: Overall things have advanced. I don’t believe this administration’s negative view will prevail very long because it’s inconsistent with what the American people want. They don’t believe government money should go to promote religion. Their hearts and minds are far, far moved from where they were 25 years ago…I think there is an enormous growth in tolerance…Once you make a certain amount of progress, you never get back to the same starting point. People have become more tolerant, more accepting.It’s only a bad time because the Supreme Court looks to be at genuine risk of falling into the hands of a majority of so-called Originalists. I do this sermon called ‘The Two Worst Ways to Make Policy: Constitutional Originalism and Biblical Literalism.’ The Bible is a wonderful book, but it’s not an ethics textbook, that’s not how it was created. And Constitutional Originalism depends on the fiction that you can tell exactly what the first Congress meant when it passed the Bill of Rights. Most of that is lost to history.
I don’t share his optimism or his view of what the public wants. When it comes to a whole range of issues — holiday displays, Ten Commandments monuments, legislative prayer, Bible courses in schools and more — the public is quite clearly on the side of more government endorsement and advancement of religion. We find ourselves fighting a mostly defensive battle these days against new arguments for religion-based exemptions from generally applicable laws, whether through RFRA or the free exercise clause, including the right to engage in discrimination. And now Trump gets to name a sizable percentage of federal judges, which will make things much worse. I’m afraid things have gotten worse, not better.
Regardless, we owe Barry a huge debt of gratitude for the work he’s done for so long. And that goes for everyone who works at AU as well. Let’s send Barry off to a well-earned retirement with a renewed purpose to continue the work he did to keep the government out of the religion business, and with a hearty “get well soon” too.