Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State Rev. Barry Lynn, Esq. (LAW ’78) discussed the role of religion in government at an event hosted by the Secular Students Alliance on Thursday night at White-Gravenor Hall.
In the past few decades, Lynn has advocated for the separation of church and state through his position as a minister in the United Church of Christ and various media appearances.
Lynn started the lecture by affirming the separation of church and state as a constitutional value, while noting the scale of religious influence and the discrimination against non-theists in political campaigns.
“I don’t think you should make policies in the United States based on anybody’s understanding of the Holy Scripture,” Lynn said. “We make decisions based on commonly shared values in everyone, so often articulated so well in the Constitution: equal protection under the law, freedom of speech [and] separation of church and state.”
According to Lynn, politicians from earlier periods of American history have advocated for the separation of religion from politics more than current politicians have. For instance, he cited President Ulysses S. Grant’s banning of religious teaching in public schools and President John F. Kennedy’s declaration of the separation of church and state.
“I don’t think there’s any candidate in either political party today, not even sure about the minority parties, who would make a statement like [Kennedy’s] and not fear that he or she would be ostracized and probably defeated for public offices,” Lynn said.
While he conceded America’s high level of religious freedom in comparison to other countries, Lynn said it is challenging to achieve the separation of church and state with 20 percent of the electorate self-identifying with the religious right.
“I think the country today does not have a problem with Christians being subjected to discriminatory treatment,” Lynn said. “It does have a problem with two things. … [One is] inertia, as when something gets started, it’s hard to stop it. The other is momentum.”
Lynn then discussed his involvement with the creation of the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. While the FRFRA influenced the ruling of the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. case, Lynn questioned the legal basis for defining corporations as religious.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. was a landmark decision that allowed closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law if its owners religiously objected to it.
“I don’t believe it was a reasonable assessment of what this bill [FRFRA] is about, because going through the entire debate, there was no reference to this ever covering corporations except the Church,” Lynn said.
Lynn also questioned the recent events surrounding Memories Pizza in Indiana, which refused to cater a gay wedding under the Public Accommodation Act.
“You just have to be served,” Lynn said. “The service is catering. The service is photographing [an] event. That’s what public accommodation does.”
Lynn said that he was disappointed in President Barack Obama for maintaining the faith-based initiatives and for allowing tax-exempt groups, including churches, to endorse candidates for public office.
“Leaders, I think, are supposed to lead,” Lynn said. “They are supposed to be people who make the arguments that other people can now look up to and not to wait for everybody or the critical mass.”
SSA President Katherine Landau said that Lynn was representative of a larger secular movement beyond Georgetown’s campus.
“It was really good to have that voice from the secular community in D.C.,” Landau said. “As the Secular Students Alliance is gearing more towards the community aspect, giving the atheists a community on campus, it was really good to dig into our roots to hear about those current issues and what he has to say about them. He was a very eloquent speaker.”
SSA member Mallory Vial (COL ’18) said that she enjoyed hearing about Lynn’s perspective and his personal approach to discussing secular issues with students.
“Barry was very engaging and personally interacted with everyone there, even calling us by name,” Vial said. “While Barry lobbies for secular issues, he is also a reverend. As most members of our group identify as non-theists, Barry’s secular but religious perspective was very interesting to hear about.”
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