On The Road Again: Some Thoughts From My 'Farewell Tour'

This issue contains a history of Americans United. I’ve been honored to play a role in it for the past quarter-century. In fact, I’ve been here so long that people sometimes ask me if I founded AU.

It would be nice to say, “Yes, I am nearing 70 and so is Americans United. I clearly recall leaving the birth canal screaming, ‘Separate church and state, just as I have been separated!’” But that story, of course, would be “fake news” – acceptable to some in Washington, but not to me.

As my retirement gets closer – it is scheduled for a few days before Thanksgiving – I have been on what some people are calling my “farewell tour,” as if I were a member of a 1970s heavy-metal band. My tour won’t take me to so many cities that you can produce a black T-shirt with the names listed on the back, but I will be speaking at a number of chapter events for the rest of my tenure here.

I visited Boston last month, meeting supporters at several events. This gave me a chance to talk about the future of this wonderful organization – and it is as rosy as it can be in a time when it’s needed as much as ever in its 70 years. I am proud of every department here and the quality of the work our staff members do every day.

While I was in Boston, for example, AU attorneys were arguing cases before two federal appeals courts. One concerns a high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., who wants to pray with players on the field after games. AU defended the school board’s proper decision to put a stop to this. Andrew Nellis, one of AU’s Madison fellows, skillfully represented AU during a portion of the argument.

The other case deals with prayers before the local government in Jackson County, Mich. Christian prayers were common before government meetings, and a member of a religious minority objected. AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee personally argued part of this case. Richard had been told he’d have 10 minutes, but the large panel of judges kept him there for half an hour.

AU’s Legislative Department, with the strong support of our Field team, has orchestrated a large campaign to get religious leaders and their congregants to sign petitions urging Congress not to change current law that prohibits tax-exempt houses of worship from intervening in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

We’ve seen a steady stream of new donors, donors who had temporarily left the family and donors who support our work now more than before – the one and only good thing that has come from the unexpected results of last November’s elections. In e-mails and letters, as well as at my most recent Boston gatherings, I’ve heard people express concern about the future of Americans United and the other charitable and advocacy organizations these folks support.

In Boston, I thought it might be helpful if our supporters heard from a younger member of the staff, so I brought along Erin Hagen, AU’s youth outreach coordinator. Erin had extraordinarily positive news to report and discussed her regular non-stop conversations at conferences for millennials – religious and non-theistic – when she is there to distribute AU materials, promote our internships and answer questions about how we work. 

Erin also offered a report on AU’s essay contest, now in its second year, which drew an astonishing 500 submissions this year. (Last year we had about 150.) I read the essays by the 15 finalists and was highly impressed with the quality of the writing and logic that went into them.

At AU, we hold weekly meetings to get a sense of the road ahead. What media coverage can we expect? What cases might come down? What thing might happen that lends itself to a graphic, Twitter storm or blog posting? We talk about what we can do to get AU on the screens of smartphones and iPads through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the other communications platforms that are increasingly popular. We look at traditional media, too: As I was writing this column in mid-June, Religion News Service ran a lengthy Q&A with me, focusing on my 25 years here.

The future looks bright. And I’m still on tour. If you live in New York City, Seattle, Houston or St. Louis, get ready. I’m coming your way soon!

 

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