Reverend Barry W. Lynn, United Church of Christ minister and champion of the church-state divide, was in San Antonio last week to stump for the Constitution’s establishment clause (which he can cite readily, in a soothing but authoritative pulpit voice). Lynn has served as the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State since 1992, a position he has used to support vigorous national debate on a host of Religious Right pet initiatives. If his brief chat with the Current whets your appetite, you can pick up Lynn’s defense of spiritual yet secular society, Piety & Politics, at your local bookstore.

There are two current court cases in Texas, one about the pledge — they added the “under God” language borrowed from the national pledge — and also the “moment of silence” lawsuit. Are those types of things an issue, and if so, why?

Yeah, they are, they’re important issues ... I think the “under God” language in the Texas pledge has no historical connection at all — it has a limited one, frankly, in the U.S. pledge, because it was only added in 1954, which surprises a lot of people. This one they know was added, what, four months ago, so I think this one lacks the claimed historical value that might, at some point — if they ever get to it — solve once and for all the question of the pledge at the federal level.

Moments of silence also are usually designed for one purpose, and that is to have a moment set aside for prayer. Whether the statute mentions prayer and silent meditation, that’s almost always ruled to be its intention, and the courts can look back at the legislative history and see what was the basis for it. If it lacks a secular purpose, if it seems clear from the record, then it’s determined to be unconstitutional. If people never mention religion during the debates, then you find courts more likely to uphold it.

On a somewhat related note, have you followed the Texas `Supreme Court` case where they ruled that `the state` can’t force religious institutions to be accredited?

I think that these are pretty fact-based. In some cases, accreditation policies could arguably interfere with the internal operations of a religious group. If it’s a part of a church, or a part of a denomination, then its claim’s always stronger, because there is this free exercise of religion — part of the 16 words of the: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — and “free exercise” does mean something. The tougher cases for them to prevail ... are the ones where they teach science in their private school, but they don’t teach evolution, they teach intelligent design. And then a university is expected to accept as students people whose biology lessons are really religion lessons.

Some of the things that are happening in Texas, how do they fit into the national trends?

I think because the so-called Religious Right can’t get very far in Washington, and is in disarray, at least temporarily, about what to do on the presidential side, it moves as it always has, back to the grassroots ... particularly focused on the institution they hate and fear the most — the public school.

Tom DeLay (your readers may remember him, he used to be famous), he’d just have these votes with almost no notice on things like, if you win a court case against the government on a matter of religion, your attorneys can’t get attorneys’ fees. And then it’d come up two days’ notice, one-day notice, people’d be confused, it’d pass, and then we’d kill it in the Senate — but now we don’t even have to worry about those things, because `House Speaker` Nancy Pelosi’s not gonna bring up some goofy proposal that some character wants just for the sake of doing that. They know that, too, which means they have more attention toward local issues, even perhaps local campaigns.

Ralph Reed — the former head of the Christian Coalition before he got into the gambling advocacy business — he once said, “I’d rather have control of a thousand school boards than the presidency.” And he meant, you get folks at the local level and eventually they’ll bubble up to the top and maybe they’ll be the president. I think they’re in that position now; they don’t quite know what to do with this field ... and Pat Robertson endorses Giuliani, but pretty much on the narrow ground that Giuliani has said “I will appoint Scalia-like justices to the Supreme Court.” And they only need one more Scalia and Roe is gone, much of church-state jurisprudence is gone, a lot of civil-rights protections. So it’s a big deal.

Now, many people in the inner circle of the Religious Right don’t care too much what Pat Robertson thinks; he still, however, has growing assets; he gets more money into his institutions … in the last year — we just checked the IRS forms about this three weeks ago — more money last year than the year before. That’s not the trajectory of a dying institution. He has a 98-percent-plus penetration of markets in television for his 700 Club program, which gets very political in the broadest sense ... So he’s got a powerful group of supporters and maybe they don’t care if somebody else says “I’d never vote for Rudy;” they go, “Well, Pat is, so maybe I should.” That’s clout.

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