- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

Just the other day a genuine political "Odd Couple" was holding forth on radio. Oliver North, the star of the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings and today a businessman and radio talk-show host, was going head to head with the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The conversation was about Gov. George W. Bush's celebrated description of New York Times reporter Adam Clymer.

"It's not a sin to call a guy an anatomical part," Mr. North said. "One reason why Bush has a 20-point lead among men is that he's a man."

"Using the 'a-hole' word is being a man?" Mr. Lynn asked.

"It's not cussing. It's not swearing," Mr. North began.

"It's a vulgarity," Mr. Lynn cut in.

And on the two went, with lots of rolling of eyes and mock clapping of hands on foreheads. On "our fabulous Friday free-for-all," as Mr. North terms it, listeners call in to castigate Mr. Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer.

Yet, Mr. North reports, 68 percent of his listeners voted to keep Mr. Lynn, 52, on the air.

"They love to hate Barry," he says. "He says the most outrageous liberal stuff. We have fun. I like bright people and Barry's a very bright guy."

Having spent eight years at the helm of the liberal church-state separation group, Mr. Lynn occupies a position as foil for defenders of the religious right. His organization jabs groups that he says use tax dollars for religious purposes, or want to.

He's also a favorite of talk-show hosts who rarely put much stock in religious faith or religious people, but who want a religious figure to take on a defender of traditional faith and values.

Sometimes his targets jab back.

"In the words of us Virginia country boys, he is all hat and no cattle," said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and chancellor of Liberty University, both in Lynchburg.

"He has written the Internal Revenue Center with many complaints about me," Mr. Falwell said. "We've never gotten a phone call from the IRS from his efforts. I don't believe he has any clout with anyone on any side."

If so, it's not for lack of trying.

Under Mr. Lynn's leadership, Americans United has called conservative religious leaders on the carpet several times, most notably the Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University, which Americans United has thus far stopped from receiving $30 million from the sale of state construction bonds.

It also released transcripts of Robertson remarks about the predominance of homosexuals in Orlando, Fla., and Scotland, which brought about the collapse of a $50 million deal between a company owned by the evangelist and the Bank of Scotland.

His organization also publicized comments made last year in Mr. Falwell's National Liberty Journal about Tinky Winky, the purple toy TV personality identified by Time magazine as a homosexual toy.

"We watch Pat Robertson's ["700 Club"] TV show almost every day," Mr. Lynn says in an interview. "Someone is taping it now. Last summer's comment that he thought assassination of foreign leaders should be part of American foreign policy was so shocking that even Christian radio stations were calling [us] saying, 'Finally, this is something we agree with you about.' "

Mr. Lynn's 60,000-name donor list and $3.5 million budget are modest by Washington standards. Most of the leg work is done by his 25-person staff while the executive director spends the bulk of his time with the media. His TV and radio appearances in 2000 alone include CBS, MSNBC, Fox, PBS, CNN even the sports channel ESPN.

Says Mr. Lynn: "My son, who's 15, a real sports fan, said, 'Finally, you're on a real network.' Bryant Gumbel's show on CBS wasn't enough."

These past few weeks have been full of media requests for comment about prayer before public-school football games and the remarks of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman about his religious faith.

"I don't think he's elevated this vice-presidential race by talking about [his faith]," Mr. Lynn says of the vice-presidential candidate. "I think he's done it a disservice … to turn it into a race as though you're running for national preacher instead of running for the highest elected offices in the country.

"He had the gall to say the Democrats' plans for prescriptions for the elderly are better than the Republicans' and then he cites the Fifth Commandment: 'Honor thy father and thy mother.' He says the economic plan of the Democrats is tantamount to parting the Red Sea. I like Bill Clinton, but to compare him to Moses is the stretch of anyone's fertile imagination."

Mr. Lynn's life calling started when, as a freshman at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., in the late 1960s, he discovered his roommate had sent his girlfriend out of the country to obtain an abortion.

"All of a sudden I realized that religious groups had now dictated what rights a woman has to make an intimate moral decision on her own," he says. "And that was what triggered me worrying about what damage it does for our country's fabric, to have religious decisions guide a country's policy. That is not a good idea."

Mr. Lynn finished school, then attended Boston University School of Theology to study for the ministry in the United Church of Christ, one of the most liberal Protestant denominations.

After brief stints as pastor of a North Barnstead, N.H., church and teaching at a Catholic high school in Boston, he moved to Washington as a policy advocate for the United Church of Christ while attending Georgetown Law School at night.

Then followed seven years with the ACLU, where he specialized in obscenity law. When Edwin Meese III, attorney general under President Reagan, proposed legislation in 1986 to restrict obscene cable television programming, outlaw "dial-a-porn" telephone messages and strengthen laws against child pornography, the ACLU in the person of Mr. Lynn denounced him for eroding "constitutional values of privacy and free expression."

"I do have very, very traditional religious beliefs," Mr. Lynn says. "Many people are surprised by that. That is something that's very much a part of who I am, but shouldn't be a part of what government is."

That, together with a house in McLean, a wife of 30 years, a dog and two children adds to Mr. Lynn's image as your everyday liberal guy next door.

Mr. Robertson, however, has a different view, calling Mr. Lynn "lower than a child molester" and an "intolerant jerk" on the air.

"I think he's gone off the deep end," Mr. Lynn says, "in criticizing what I think are legitimate policy positions of his organization."

He will be watching and needling Mr. Robertson later this month while attending the Christian Coalition's Sept. 29-30 "Road to Victory" conference.

"The religious right thinks of me as the closest thing to an incarnate of the devil they can find," he says. "When I go to the Christian Coalition convention, many people do recognize me. They want to talk to me. They want to convert me, they want to yell at me, or they want their picture taken with me.

"I don't consider these people to be monsters. You can have sharp difference of opinion without being insulting."

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