My Debate At Regent U.

'Clash Of The Titans' (And Their Action Figures)

Who wouldn't be excited by this opportunity? Tel­e­vision preacher Pat Ro­bert­son invited me to help celebrate the 25th anni­vers­ary of his Re­gent Uni­versity. He wanted me to take part in a debate labeled "Clash of the Titans," a near apocalyptic two-hour showdown between competing teams in America's culture wars.

I decided to accept Pat's offer. As I told The-Virginian-Pilot, Robertson's hometown newspaper, "There's no audience in America that needs to hear the other side more than the folks likely to appear in this audience."

At the debate, it was Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, ACLU President Nadine Strossen, and me against Jay Sekulow, Robertson's legal eagle, David Limbaugh, Rush's younger brother and syndicated columnist, and Ann Coulter, sometimes referred to as a "public intellectual" (whatever that is).

I don't worry about such encounters even when the audience is a packed house of Regent donors (who reportedly shelled out $300 for a ticket), a few Regent students and one person known to occasionally be a "liberal," my wife Joanne.

Well, actually, there was one thing that did concern me; I had never debated anyone before who has an "action figure" of themselves for sale. (Note to Dave Barry: I am not making this up.) There is an Ann Coulter talking doll that says things like: "At least when conservatives rant, they say something."

The basic question, moderated by Court TV's Catherine Crier, was: "Has the Supreme Court overstepped its constitutional authority?" Needless to say, I was on the "no" side.

My basic argument was twofold. First, the Constitution wisely set up a judicial branch because some entity must be able to make final decisions about what "rights" Americans have. As in a baseball game, a pitch is not a "ball" or a "strike" until the umpire calls it; what some jurists call the "majestic generalities" of the Constitution often need interpretation. Those decisions are made by federal courts, but can, of course, be changed by constitutional amendment.

Second, the idea of "liberty" protected by the 14th Amendment demands that individual conscience, not governments, be allowed to make choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of groaning and booing in the audience during the debate, but I think when the encounter is aired on C-SPAN, objective viewers will find that the hyperbole and hysterics from the debaters on the "right" were unjustified and the scope of power they would afford the federal courts bizarrely narrow and misapplied.

At one point, I asked Ann Coulter (with whom I had never had a public debate) what "rights" she thought were reserved "to the states and to the people" in the 9th Amendment, a part of the Bill of Rights she regularly championed. She noted that these included prevention of undue regulation of SUV's and cigar smoking.

She was apparently serious. Pardon me if these concerns seem a tad less significant than the rights I would include as "fundamental," like reproductive freedom and religious conscience. Of course, I could be wrong, because there is no Barry Lynn action toy.

Our team really didn't plan much in advance, but I believe we worked together well. At one point, Ann said she had always wanted to ask me "where my church is," this to demonstrate that I currently have a full time job as a separation advocate (and thus in her view not really a "reverend").

Nadine noted that since we were on that job topic: "Ann, where is your law firm?" Indignantly, Ann responded that she doesn't consider herself a lawyer, implying that Nadine's question was rude. Immediately, Alan opened that afternoon's program and said "Ann, you're listed here as Ann Coulter, lawyer."

As I recall, her response (to this and many other gaffes) was to flip her hair back in dismay. (I don't know if her doll exhibits this behavior).

During our individual closing statements, I noted that the die of social progress and inclusion has already been cast, and that even if this Adminis­tration's appointed judges create more rocky roads ahead, "justice will roll down like water, and like the Red Sea closing, it will sweep away intolerance, bigotry and discrimination, with no poli­tician or religious interest group able to stop it." The audience actually applauded (perhaps because of the biblical allusions alone).

The applause really didn't make my day. An event at the reception that followed did. A Regent student (age, gender and race will go unmentioned to protect privacy) asked me to step aside for a moment and then announced "you got a convert today." That one change of heart was of inestimably greater value that the $10,000 speaking fee that I got for doing the debate and which I turned over immediately to Americans United so we can all fight Pat's anti-separation activities on so many fronts.

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