You can be welcomed to a town in many ways. Take my recent trip to Boise, Idaho. I had just arrived at the Kopper Kitchen for breakfast with the police chief, a newly elected city council member and other public officials to discuss the law of religious displays on public land.
Someone handed me the editorial page of the morning’s newspaper, The Idaho Statesman, and three quarters of it was filled with church-state separation issues. There were letters to the editor and a political cartoon on “intelligent design.” An editorial applauded a recent decision by a federal judge (ironically named B. Lynn Winmill) who ruled that a city-owned, but religious group-operated, homeless shelter could not require men to participate in worship services in order to get a bed.
Finally, there was an unflattering opinion piece about me, written by local pastor Bryan Fischer. I hadn’t spoken a word in the state for over a decade, but Pastor Fischer was already incensed.
His column was mainly a hoary rehash of misinformation about how Thomas Jefferson liked to mix religion and government. Fischer was probably particularly cranky because a member of his “Save the Commandments Coalition” had been defeated in the recent council election by a 2-1 margin. This candidate based his campaign on a call to return a Ten Commandments monument to a public park after it had been respectfully moved to the lawn of a downtown Episcopal cathedral to avoid any legal problems.
Boise voters apparently thought putting a sacred symbol on sacred space, not in a park frequented by dog walkers and skateboarders, was a pretty common-sense resolution.
Boise was one of the later stops on a Western tour of duty that had taken me to California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho and Colorado. The week had been filled with the typical array of public-speaking activities, including radio and television interviews, college classes (at Albertson College in Caldwell, Idaho, nearly a quarter of the student body showed up for a lecture on “intelligent design”), presentations to Americans United chapters and other organizations we work with such as the Anti-Defamation League and interfaith groups.
A few of the events, though, contained some out-of-the-ordinary footnotes. In Los Angeles, I was given the Leonard Rose Award by the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, a group that collects funds to help poor women, many the victims of assault or incest, pay for medical expenses linked to reproductive health.
Grants went to women in 48 states last year. That group was particularly interested in AU’s efforts to preserve the independence of the federal courts, prevent politicking from the pulpit and stop religiously based discrimination in President George W. Bush’s “faith-based” initiative.
Surveying the audience, I was delighted to see a familiar face: David Hardberger, my best friend in elementary school. I hadn’t seen him since l964 when he “borrowed” a car and drove cross country, finishing up high school living with relatives in California. David now works in the movie industry, and my main contact with him for 40 years was seeing his credits as a camera operator for big-budget films like “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “Return of the Jedi.”
Boise also featured an unusual occurrence. My final appearance there was the annual banquet for the Idaho affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. I had noticed that the next ballroom over from our dinner was an event labeled “Angel Party.” I assumed this was most likely a rehearsal dinner for a wedding in a family surnamed “Angel.” Well, not exactly!
I was in the middle of my speech, commenting on some of the more bizarre recent ramblings of James Dobson and Pat Robertson. I mentioned that Robertson had just told people in Dover, Pa., that if a disaster struck the city God wouldn’t help them. They had angered God, Robertson said, by tossing a pro-“intelligent design” slate out of office.
Suddenly, loud hymns began wafting through the walls from the event next door. Was this a divine comment signaling support for my criticism of Robertson? Again, not exactly. It turns out “Angel Party” is an annual right-wing fund-raiser for a group called Birthright of Idaho, one of those dishonest “counseling” centers for pregnant unmarried women seeking advice who are never told about any options other than motherhood and adoption.
Not everything about traveling out of Washington is fun. Northwest Airlines now sells the hungry coast-to-coast traveler “trail mix” for one dollar a bag. Another airline cancelled my flight (that is, took it off the schedule forever), but never bothered to inform me until I arrived at the check-in counter. I was staying in a room right above the karaoke bar in one hotel. But, on balance, it is great to be a part of the public dialogue about the issues we all care about.
This wasn’t what I expected to be doing when I was in elementary school I wanted to be a dentist but I wouldn’t have wanted my career to turn out any other way. David, on the other hand, always wanted to make movies.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.