ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: Bush policies keep church and state separatists busy

Despite having more work now than any other time in its 55-year history, Americans United for Separation of Church and State remains responsive to the media.

Despite having more work now than any other time in its 55-year history, Americans United for Separation of Church and State remains responsive to the media.

The three-person staff at Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) has seldom been busier. The ascendancy of President Bush's devoutly conservative White House, with its avowed goal of giving religion a more central role in government and civic life, is keeping the 55-year-old watchdog group on its toes. The Washington-based organization has labored to keep up with a legislative and political agenda that includes vouchers allowing low-income kids to attend private - and often religious - schools, a revived debate over teaching of evolution theory in schools, and the President's Faith-Based and Community Initiative (FBCI), which would award grants to religious institutions for civic work. "Our workload has increased enormously since the Bush administration," says AU director of communications Joseph Conn, who has worked for the group since the 1980s. "It's one thing to have the religious right opposing separation of church and state, but now it's in a position to do something about it, and the President is essentially saying he doesn't care about separation of church and state. That's much more of a problem." In addition to monitoring the religious right and mustering its 70,000 members against initiatives that it says threaten to topple the constitutional wall separating church and state, AU runs a sophisticated lobbying and legal operation, pressing politicians from state capitals to the Hill and carrying its battle to the courtroom. But its most visible role is in providing news media an accessible, authoritative counterpoint to the Christian right on church-state issues. A rapport with the media "We see the media as being critical," says Conn. "We do almost no paid advertising, so we try to get our message out through op-eds, appearances on talk shows, and talking to reporters." On stories involving church-state issues, reporters are quick to source AU. The group has built a solid relationship with the Washington press along with those covering religion, and its executive director, United Church of Christ minister Barry Lynn, is a fixture on the political talk-show circuit. "Because their area of expertise is so narrow, they're the first place I turn when writing about the role of religion in government," says USA Today White House reporter Judy Keen. "They're always responsive when I place a call, and Barry Lynn is almost always available to answer questions." Cultivating relationships with the media is important to AU. "We try to get acquainted with reporters covering all the beats that intersect with our concerns - religion, Congress, the Supreme Court, and political reporters - and let them know what we have to offer if the religious-right leaders are putting forth a perspective we think is either wrong or misguided," says AU research coordinator Steve Benen. The bulk of AU's media efforts go into "putting out fires" by lining up interviews in response to court cases and policy directives. At the moment, the group is pressing its joint case with the American Civil Liberties Union against the Alabama Supreme Court chief justice's courtroom display of the Ten Commandments and working to publicize cases in Ohio and Georgia where schools could be encouraged to teach creationism alongside evolution. School-voucher plans have had their setbacks but remain in play, and despite stalling in the Senate, so is the President's FBCI scheme, which has generated more coverage for the group than any other issue. "With the faith-based initiative, we've seen an avalanche of interest," says Conn. "We were the point group opposing that." Long live Tinky Winky AU also has developed a knack for trumpeting the more outlandish pronouncements of Christian conservative leaders like Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority, and Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition (CC). "I sometimes think that on my tombstone they're going to write, 'Here lies the guy that saved Tinky Winky from Jerry Falwell,'" says Conn. Tinky Winky, the purple, purse-carrying character from the kids' TV show Teletubbies, was the subject of a 1999 screed by Jerry Falwell in his ill-circulated magazine National Liberty Journal. Falwell suggested Tinky Winky was part of a conspiracy to brainwash children into the acceptance of homosexuality. AU forwarded the article to an Associated Press reporter in Richmond, VA, and within weeks the story went global - and Falwell was made the laughingstock of late-night talk shows. The group has bedeviled Falwell and Robertson with a string of such media coups in recent years, shaking the televangelists' already iffy credibility with political moderates, forcing politicians to distance themselves from them and, of course, getting their own name in print. More recently, the group has spotlighted the acceptance of a federal grant based on the FBCI by Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing after the evangelist had condemned the program, suggesting it might create a dependency among religious charities for federal dollars. And when an anonymous source forwarded AU a tape that contained comments by Robertson at a closed-door meeting suggesting that the CC could build a political machine to rival old New York's Tammany Hall, AU forwarded it to reporters and the Internal Revenue Service, which suspended the CC's tax-exempt status as a religious charity. In addition to handling all media relations (AU does not use agencies or other contractors), AU communications puts out the group's monthly magazine Church & State, which goes out to 40,000 paid subscribers. The department also produces brochures that are distributed through the membership, and provides speakers for appearances at conventions and religious and political meetings. In addition, the organization's website (www.au.org) serves as a crucial link between the group and the news-reading public. "Increasingly, we're realizing that the internet is important to us," says Conn. "Every time Barry Lynn is on TV, the site gets another round of hits." An issue of credibility Reporters and producers credit AU with a focused message and a nonpartisan positioning that embraces religion, invoking clerical as well as secular voices in opposition to religious trespasses on government. "They're not reflexively against religion in any form in government," says Keen. "That gives them more credibility as sources. They are coming at it from a legal standpoint, not an emotional one." The group has worked hard to cultivate that credibility, often assembling roundtables of clergy from different faiths and opposite ends of the political spectrum. AU staffers boast that they come under fire from the left as well as the right, and point to their criticism of Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman's pious sermonizing during his 2000 run for Vice President. The group, frequently characterized by Republican commentators as a hotbed of liberalism, found its phone lines flooded with calls from angry Democrats who accused AU of being a front group for Republicans. "It's something we take extremely seriously," says AU research coordinator Steve Benen. "We work with folks from the far right and the far left. We have relationships with Democrats and Republicans on the Hill and devoutly religious individuals as well as secular. If we become partisan, we not only lose our tax-exempt status, we lose our political capital as well." AU has honed its message over the years to stress that religious freedoms flow from church-state separation. "You'd think it wouldn't be that hard," says Conn. "Just look at places where government and religion are injudiciously mixed, like Iran or Northern Ireland. We try to remind people how successful separation has been here." ------------------------------------------- Americans United for Sep. of Church & State Executive director Rev. Barry Lynn Director of communications and editor, Church & State Joseph Conn Assistant director of communications Rob Boston Research coordinator Steve Benen

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