The Reverend Barry Lynn has for 21 years been executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
PLAYBOY: The First Amendment says government cannot endorse any particular religion, yet many people seem confused by what that means. Why do you think that is?
LYNN: Some people read only the part that says the government cannot restrict the “free exercise” of religion. But that doesn’t mean public meetings can start with a prayer.
PLAYBOY: Apparently that’s still being decided. In May the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving a town council that invites local clergy to pray at its meetings. Why is it a problem as long as the town council doesn’t exclude anyone?
LYNN: Nearly all the ministers are Christians. And they pray while standing behind a podium with the town seal, which strikes me as an endorsement. The plaintiffs—one is Jewish and the other an atheist—say the practice makes them feel like outsiders in their own community. The Bible makes a strong case that Jesus would not be leading public prayers. He said we should separate what is God’s from what is Caesar’s. Go into the closet and pray rather than show off how devout you are.
PLAYBOY: So why all the confusion?
LYNN: It’s partly due to the complete obfuscation of the issue by Catholic bishops and the religious right. They interpret the First Amendment to mean they can ignore any law they don’t like.
PLAYBOY: When you give talks on the separation of church and state, what is the reaction?
LYNN: I often hear there is a war on religion. At one lecture a guy came up to me afterward and used that phrase, and I asked him to give me an example of how this supposed war had affected him. He said his local firehouse can’t put up a nativity scene. I don’t find that convincing.
PLAYBOY: At one time more than 30 states endorsed or required the public reading of Bible verses and prayers in schools. Then in 1956 a student in Pennsylvania read in class from the Koran in protest and was disciplined.
LYNN: The Schempp case.
PLAYBOY: According to social conservatives, that’s when the Supreme Court kicked God out of public schools.
LYNN: That’s an odd theological view, that the court could kick God out of anywhere. I was with Ellery Schempp a few weeks ago at an event where he had a dialogue with a young woman from Rhode Island [Jessica Ahlquist, winner of a 2013 Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award]. She had challenged a religious mural at her high school. Their cases are 50 years apart. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The battle for church-state separation may have to be fought all over again.” Sadly, that has been the case.
PLAYBOY: Around election time, you sometimes see ministers endorsing candidates. What’s wrong with that?
LYNN: If you have 501©(3) tax-exempt status, people can give you money and deduct it. In turn, you cannot endorse or oppose political candidates, including on the pulpit or with phony “voter guides” that make every progressive sound like Hitler. We have complaints pending with the IRS against 100 churches, though the typical punishment seems to be having the pastor promise never to do it again.