It is nice to know that some Americans United chapters are eligible to receive their AARP cards in the mail, just as I did a few years ago. This includes the one in St. Louis, Mo., which recently celebrated over a half century of activity.
Long in advance, chapter leaders asked me to speak and offer a wrap-up of what we had learned from the election results and the challenges that would be presented to separation of church and state. The chapter has been around long enough to know that any result would pose challenges because the principle of religious liberty is often not adequately defended in both political parties.
Somewhat later, they told me the anniversary dinner was to be held at the St. Louis Zoo. This is a world-class educational and conservation facility. However, I also suspected that if Jerry Falwell found out, he’d write a column in his newspaper headlined, “Barry Lynn Finally Sent to Zoo to Join Ancestors.” (He didn’t find out, so please don’t tell him.)
The St. Louis chapter has maintained its health through recent decades thanks to the extraordinary work of the same broad mix of people who make up the Americans United family generally: a Baptist minister, Rudy Pulido; a local attorney, Cynthia Holmes; a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, Robert Salter and a retired school board member with a penchant for getting others to join the organization, Bob Drummond. That’s just the beginning. There are humanists and religious activists, Democrats and Republicans, craftsmen and health-care workers.
This dinner also had a mix of people older than the chapter and some younger. To be accurate, I’d have to say that the slant was more toward the former. That is the way it is in most of the non-profits at whose events I speak. Americans United, though, has clearly recognized that there is more to do about the future strength of the organization than to merely hope younger people “catch on” to the significance of the issues we care about.
Earlier in that day, Meredith Schnug, a law student and Americans United National Advisory Council member, had arranged for me to speak to fellow students at Washington University School of Law about some of Americans United’s history and current cases. Associate Dean for Students Mark Smith introduced me. We had a good turnout and a lively hour of discussion.
At least two students said they had decided to apply to be summer clerks with our organization. An African-American student suggested that black churches needed to hear more of our message. Many of the attendees said they wished they could stay longer but had to attend classes. I’m always eager to locate those members of the next generation of leaders and spokespersons.
In between events, I had the opportunity to do a long-distance satellite feed to appear on “The O’Reilly Factor” to do my annual “winter holidays” visit to defend keeping governments out of the business of promoting religion. O’Reilly occasionally has me on because he agrees with AU’s perspective, but this yearly visit is not one of those occasions.
Bill began by asserting that there is a “jihad” against “public displays of Christmas.” He and Richard Thompson, head of the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan, then launched into a joint rant against a New Jersey middle school that decided to have all secular songs, choral and instrumental, in its end-of-year student concert.
Thompson was soliciting plaintiffs to sue the school to force the inclusion of religious songs. Bill said, “Now, reverend, when you hear that they threw the Christmas music out, what do you think?”
I replied, “First of all, I want to say – because this is, of course, a privately funded network – ‘Merry Christmas to both of you.’” There was even a brief smile on O’Reilly’s visage. Then I explained that public schools cannot be successfully sued for refusing to sponsor Christmas carols. We need to make sure there will always be another Lynn to say what needs to be said to the next O’Reilly.
One of the things we try to do at Americans United is coordinate our efforts. For two days before my trip, I had done radio shows in St. Louis, on both the popular National Public Radio affiliate there as well as a more conservative, Rush Limbaugh-playing station. I joined Cynthia Holmes, who had just left our Board of Trustees, on the NPR program. Some people who heard these shows joined the organization or made significant contributions.
Chapters provide a place to work for new separationist activists. Activists alert us to church-state violations in their local communities. They put a local face and spin on issues that may, at first blush, appear to be just dimly understood, remote constitutional principles. Chapters provide us with plaintiffs in lawsuits like the one to stop government funding for the rebuilding of active California missions. Chapters and their activists respond first to alerts to contact state and congressional representatives about the panoply of First Amendment issues that arise every year (and which are likely to arise even more regularly in the coming months).
We’ll be working hard in 2005 at increasing chapter strength and activity around the country. We want to make sure that there are lots of chapters who will have someone from the Washington office there to celebrate their half-century anniversaries.
Barry W. Lynn is the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.