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Dimitri Cavalli » Sunday Reflection
The remarkable evolution of the Rev. Barry Lynn
s the executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Barry Lynn, a lawyer and minister with the United Church of Christ, works hard to counter the inﬂuence of the Religious Right — and, depending on the issue, the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He works tirelessly to make sure churches strictly follow IRS guidelines that prohibit tax-exempt organizations from engaging in any electioneering. Many people may not realize, however, that Lynn’s views have evolved considerably since the late 1970s on the proper relationship between organized religion and the federal government. And his change of position on respect for individual conscience has coincided closely with the waning inﬂuence of the Religious Left, and the rise of the Religious Right. In 2009, Lynn accused the Catholic bishops of “unparalleled arrogance” and imposing their “religious doctrine into law” when they lobbied Congress to exclude abortion coverage from President Obama’s health care bill. Lynn added: “It’s scandalous that this religious group has such extraordinary control over the fate of women’s lives in this country.” In the last year, Lynn has endorsed the Obama administration’s birth control mandate, agreeing that Catholic bishops have no right to impose their church’s teachings on their own institutions, either. Compare this with Lynn’s position in the mid-1970s, when he began working as a “policy advocate” with the United Church of Christ’s lobbying arm, the Ofﬁce for Church in Society in D.C. He later served as its legislative counsel. He frequently testiﬁed at congressional hearings and lobbied members of Congress, representing the UCC’s views on different public policy issues. In 1979, Lynn lobbied against disclosure requirements for the lobbying activities of nonproﬁt organizations, arguing that such requirements would discourage “citizen advocacy” and disproportionately impact religious groups, which often operated with considerably fewer resources than large corporations. “The churches’ most single important role in Washington is to help people [in government] sort out the values that are implicit in the decisions that they make,” Lynn explained to the Washington Post on July 22, 1979. “We ought to be able to say to the government: ‘You have done something wrong; you have chosen the wrong path to take.’ ” Lynn and his group now regularly ﬁle complaints with the Internal Revenue Service against churches that distribute “voter guides” providing information about political candidates’ stances. “Such guides are often thinly veiled
partisan materials,” he wrote in a letter sent to churches around the country. In 1980, however, Lynn led the charge in the media when his church ﬁled a federal lawsuit to protect precisely this kind of voter guide. A 1978 IRS ruling had threatened the ability of nonproﬁt organizations to publish such guides, which Lynn denounced to the Washington Post (on Sept. 23, 1980) as “interfering with [our] First Amendment rights to publish voting records of the members of Congress.” The IRS backed down and, on Oct. 9, 1980, ruled that the UCC could publish voter guides. Americans United’s website states that all 501(c)(3) nonproﬁts “that openly break the law should lose their tax exemptions.” But Lynn has not always been enthusiastic about getting people to obey the law when he headed two anti-draft organizations in the early 1980s — the Committee Against Registration and the Draft, and Draft Action. Back then, Lynn condemned the federal prosecutions of young men who refused to register with the Selective Service System. In 1982, Lynn championed the case of Enten Eller, a college student who was convicted of refusing to register. Lynn stood with Eller’s parents outside court and told reporters, “It is a shame that the United States now joins the ranks of nations that regularly seek to quash the exercise of conscience by hauling religious dissenters into court for violations of trivial laws.” It is a point often raised today by Lynn’s critics — that the IRS should devote its resources to investigating serious crimes (like tax evasion and money laundering) instead of policing religious and secular nonproﬁts for “trivial” violations that carry no jail time. How can the Rev. Barry Lynn credibly demand that churches follow IRS guidelines and that Catholic bishops comply with the birth control mandate when he once opposed the enforcement of a law (which the Supreme Court upheld in 1981) he didn’t like? How can he now support legal measures to curb the inﬂuence of religious groups he disagrees with when he, as a youthful religious lobbyist driving a beat-up 1971 Toyota, opposed similar measures that would have practically silenced the voices of “progressive” churches, including his own? The fact that the so-called Religious Right has eclipsed the inﬂuence of the Religious Left in American public life since the early 1980s is not a justiﬁcation for the good reverend’s brazen use of double standards in protecting the wall of separation between church and state.
Dimitri Cavalli is a freelance writer in New York City.
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