Thursday, April 14, 2005

Special Report: Second of three parts.

The weekend before President Bush’s second inauguration, 60 humanists, atheists and ethical culturalists gathered at a hotel just off Dupont Circle for an “emergency meeting” organized by the American Humanist Association.

“The situation is now as bad as we’ll ever see it,” Roy Speckhardt, the group’s deputy director, says afterward.

He predicts that Mr. Bush’s evangelical Christian views would be folded into government policy on judicial appointees, abortion, social services and other issues.

“A slim [election] victory is being interpreted as a mandate on moral issues, so we are concerned,” Mr. Speckhardt says.

One of the 20 organizations represented at the pre-inaugural strategy session was a group from Madison, Wis., called the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Group founder Anne Nicol Gaylor, 78, unable to attend because of failing eyesight, sent son-in-law Dan Barker in her place.

The foundation is the mom-and-pop operation among the four main organizations — the others being the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and People for the American Way — that are leading the legal battles to push God from the public square and create a nation in man’s image.

In 28 years, Mrs. Gaylor’s foundation has filed about 25 lawsuits in addition to complaints that never made it to court. An early victory halted the 122-year history of prayers at University of Wisconsin graduation ceremonies in 1976 because of a complaint lodged by Mrs. Gaylor’s daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor, then a student. She is now the co-director of the foundation with her husband, Mr. Barker. In 1985, their group managed to stop the university football team’s pre-game prayers.

“Sometimes all you have to do is complain,” Mr. Barker says. “It’s better that way, and cheaper. She asked the school why there’s prayer, and they said, ‘Gee, why is there?’ ”

Christianity and other religions are essentially harmful, in the view of the foundation, which claims 5,000 members, most of them atheists who make small donations.

“There is complete scorn on the part of the current administration as to the separation of church and state,” the elder Mrs. Gaylor says in an interview. “There has never been any less respect in Washington for church-state separation, even though church-state separation is one of the things that made our country possible in the first place.”

Many Christians and others of faith, however, see a growing threat that Mrs. Gaylor and her allies are intent on loosing the nation from its Judeo-Christian moorings.

Building the wall

On New Year’s Day 1802, President Jefferson wrote a letter to a Connecticut association of Baptists that would change American judicial history and define the boundaries of religious freedom.

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’” Jefferson wrote, quoting the First Amendment.

“Thus,” he continued, “building a wall of separation between church and state.”

Although not part of the Constitution, those concluding 10 words are considered by many Americans to be authoritative on the subject. Jefferson’s letter celebrated religious liberty, yet the courts have cited his “wall” to bar faith and its forms from government, including schools, public parks and buildings.

The nation’s third president sought to reassure the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, representatives of a minority denomination that refused to conform to the established Congregationalist and Episcopal churches. He actually intended his letter to convince the Baptists that a state-established church would not trample their beliefs.

Jefferson’s phrase did not enter the lexicon of constitutional law until 1879, when Supreme Court Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite quoted it in Reynolds v. United States, in which Mormon polygamist George Reynolds argued that the First Amendment allowed him to commit bigamy. The Supreme Court used the wall metaphor to explain that the Constitution was not meant to support specific Mormon practices.

In 1947, Justice Hugo L. Black resurrected “the wall of separation between church and state” in writing for the majority in Everson v. Board of Education, a New Jersey case asking whether the state should subsidize bus service for Catholic children in parochial schools.

“That wall must be kept high and impregnable,” Justice Black wrote. “We could not approve the slightest breach.”

The high court nevertheless upheld the state subsidy. This infuriated many Baptists, who traditionally have been among the strongest supporters of separation of church and state. They regarded the decision as favoring Catholics.

In 1947, Joseph Dawson, executive secretary of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, founded Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

More than 50 years later, with the named shortened to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the organization campaigns from its Capitol Hill offices against what it views as entanglements of religion and government.

Beliefs versus policy

Americans United prevented the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Virginia Beach-based Christian graduate school, Regent University, from receiving $30 million from the sale of state construction bonds.

One of the group’s several complaints last year to the Internal Revenue Service cited a pastoral letter from the Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs, in which he urged Catholics to vote for pro-life candidates. Other complaints targeted rallies in Pennsylvania and Ohio churches for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

Americans United vigorously protested when Congress and Mr. Bush intervened in hopes of preventing the starvation death of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose plight focused the nation’s attention on end-of-life issues before her death March 31.

Even so, the group’s executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, a minister with the United Church of Christ, among the most liberal Protestant denominations, maintains genial relations with conservatives. For four years, Mr. Lynn was co-host, with conservative commentator Oliver North, of a show on the Christian radio network Salem Communications. He is on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union and a regular analyst on Fox News.

“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 that shouldn’t be a part of what government is.”

Mr. Lynn is not easily painted as an “anti-Christian soldier.” Government bans on abortion first galvanized him. As a freshman at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., in the late 1960s, he discovered that his roommate had taken a girlfriend out of the country to terminate her pregnancy.

“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,” Mr. Lynn 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.”

Mr. Lynn took issue with references to God and faith in Mr. Bush’s inaugural ceremony and address in January and with the fact that only Christian clergymen participated.

“An event that is billed as a celebration for the entire nation should include everyone, even those who profess no faith,” he says. “This inaugural sent a message that in order to be truly American, you must also be religious.”

Mr. Lynn took umbrage at remarks that the president had made a week earlier in an Oval Office interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

“I don’t see how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord,” Mr. Bush said, discussing the role of his personal faith in his public office.

“It offended many people because it seemed to suggest that as a matter of principle … he thought he really couldn’t be president, he couldn’t imagine a person who was Muslim or Jewish who didn’t have the Christian Lord as his leader,” Mr. Lynn said Jan. 17 on “MSNBC Reports.”

Another guest on the show, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, teased Mr. Lynn.

Mr. Bush’s comment “didn’t offend three-quarters to 80 to 90 percent of Americans,” Mr. Land said. “Barry Lynn is in an extreme secularist minority and he’s running around with his hair on fire, and nobody’s noticing.”

Hollywood glitz

Television and film producer Norman Lear, together with Barbara Jordan, the former Democratic congresswoman from Texas, founded People for the American Way in 1981. Their purpose, according to their mission statement, was “to counter the growing clout and divisive message of right-wing televangelists, including Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart.”

Mr. Lear hired lawyer and lobbyist Anthony Podesta — whose brother, John, would become President Clinton’s chief of staff — as the founding president. The group, based in Southern California, made TV specials to spread its message as well as to fight efforts to return prayer to public schools and remove the theory of evolution from biology textbooks.

Hollywood celebrities were enlisted as board members, among them actor Alec Baldwin and songwriter Marilyn Bergman. The board also drew from the religious left, including the Rev. Robert Drinan, a Georgetown University professor and former Massachusetts congressman. President Ralph G. Neas, who declined to comment for this article, has identified himself as a Catholic.

“We have a different vision of religious freedom; we just don’t want the government pushing it,” says Elliot Mincberg, the group’s vice president and legal director. “We think when it comes to religious free exercise, the Constitution says the government should get out of the way.”

David Horowitz, who edits the idiosyncratic conservative Web site and is a former leftist, insists that People for the American Way “was organized as an anti-Christian group.”

“On their Web site, they smear the [Christian] religious right,” Mr. Horowitz says. “Why not the Jewish right? Why not the Muslim right?”

“Right Wing Watch” on does take note of some secular groups, but conservative Christians are the prime targets.

Mr. Mincberg lists three conservative Jewish organizations as troublesome: Toward Tradition, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and Agudath Israel of America.

“We’ve done plenty of battle with them as well,” he says, “but it’s the Christian right that’s been out there much more aggressively.”

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson is viewed as a major menace.

“If you had to pick one person who has the most power and influence nationally, you might pick him,” Mr. Mincberg says.

People for the American Way criticized Mr. Robertson’s 1988 presidential run; opposed the Supreme Court nominations of Robert J. Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991; and sponsored a 1998 advertising campaign against President Clinton’s impeachment. More recently, it started a $5 million advertising campaign to pressure Senate Republicans to back down on reforms of filibuster rules that would hasten confirmation of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group, the Lear organization’s political action committee gave $177,802 in the 2004 election cycle, 98 percent of it to Democratic candidates, party committees and leadership political action committees.

The group’s political action committee, Voters Alliance, donated a total of $42,500 to 18 Democratic House candidates and $54,000 to 15 Democratic Senate candidates. The largest contribution: $10,000 to the losing campaign of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

‘Out of a hat’

The Freedom from Religion Foundation issued a press release Sept. 13, 2001, calling the September 11 attacks by Islamist terrorists “the ultimate faith-based initiative.”

The release went on: “Religion is not the answer, it is probably the problem.”

And: “Prayer had its chance on September 11 and it failed.”

September 11 “should have clinched the idea this is a naturalistic universe,” group leader Mr. Barker says. “To stand by and do nothing makes God an accomplice. If He exists, why are we worshipping this monster?”

The fight against God and for abortion rights appear intertwined for Mr. Barker’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Gaylor. She was born in 1926 in Tomah, Wis. A biography posted at the group’s Web site,, says her mother died when she was 2 and her father, a farmer, found religion “embarrassing.” She graduated as an English major from University of Wisconsin in 1949 and was married the same year.

After raising four children, Mrs. Gaylor, in 1972, founded the Women’s Medical Fund, which has helped 14,000 poor women obtain abortions. In 1975, she published a book “Abortion Is a Blessing.”

A friend, Anne Treseder, identifies the motivation behind Mrs. Gaylor’s anti-religion activism in a letter dated that year: “She told me that after much soul-searching she had concluded that a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, and to basic civil rights, would never be realized as long as religious dogma played such a huge role in government policy.”

Mrs. Gaylor decided she needed the backing of an organization, so she began her foundation with three members in 1976.

“It was almost a joke,” says Mr. Barker, 55. “Anne just wanted to complain to the media about prayers in public meetings. People asked her what her group was. So she pulled the name out of a hat.”

Mrs. Gaylor’s husband and children helped her build the organization with offbeat publicity stunts. In 1983, the group posted pink-and-black signs on buses in Madison, Wis., calling the Bible “a grim fairy tale.”

‘Fighting back’

Besides eliminating public prayer at the state university, her successes include ending Good Friday’s status as an official state holiday in 1996; banning taxpayer subsidies (in the form of free Internet connections) to private schools in Wisconsin in 2001; and removing a Ten Commandments inscription from public land in Milwaukee in 2002.

Mr. Barker draws a distinction between the “public square,” which he defines as anything owned by the government, and the “public sphere,” where points of view are expressed.

“We think the government should be neutral — not advancing nor hindering religion — in the public square,” he says. “In the public sphere, we are free to express our points of view.”

Mr. Barker says he decided he was an atheist in 1983, about 20 years after he says he became an evangelist at 15. He began to question his faith, he says, after serving as a Quaker, independent charismatic and Assemblies of God pastor and after performing missionary work in Mexico.

Mr. Barker moved to Wisconsin to work for Mrs. Gaylor’s foundation, marrying Annie Laurie Gaylor in 1987 and joining the family cause. A piano player who has accompanied Pat Boone and other Christian artists, he now recasts old hymns in humanist terms with titles such as “You Can’t Win with Original Sin” and “God-Less America.”

Julaine Appling, executive director of the Family Research Institute in Madison, Wis., frequently contends with the Barker organization. Most of its energy is spent challenging Christians, Ms. Appling says.

“When they go after religion, they go after Christianity aggressively,” she says. “I don’t see them going after other religions.”

Part I

Religion under a secular assault

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