Two Thumbs Up!

Nationwide 'First Freedom First' Theater Simulcast Brings Together Celebrities, Citizen Activists To Promote Church-State Separation

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Ellen Brown, president of Americans United’s San Diego chapter, wasn’t sure what to expect as she pulled into the parking lot of Mira Mesa Stadium 18 Theaters the evening of March 26.

Brown wouldn’t be taking in an action flick or a romantic comedy. Instead, she had reserved tickets for a production called “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Separation of Church and State…But Were Afraid to Ask.”

The program, a mix of information and entertainment sponsored by Americans United and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation (TIA), was a new approach for both groups, and Brown wasn’t sure how it would come off.

“We had over 180 reservations, but 6 p.m. in San Diego is the height of rush hour and anything can and usually does happen,” Brown said.

But no worries. A crowd of more than 150 filled the theater, and Brown was pleased with what she saw on screen.

“The content was excellent and well presented,” Brown said the next day. “You could hear a pin drop in our theater during the entire presentation. While I know this was a big undertaking both in time and cost, I think an event like this may have done more for the cause than everything that has preceded it.”

Similar kudos poured in from other parts of the country. In New York City, the response to “Everything You Always Wanted to Know…” was so enthusiastic that the show had to be moved to a larger venue. In Philadelphia, nearly 200 packed a theater, and some were so fired up afterwards that they asked what they could do to get more involved in the issue.

In Portland, Ore., a crowd of 200 attended.

“The reactions by the attendees were very positive, with applause, groans, laughter, at appropriate times,” reported Hugh Shuford, co-chair of AU’s Clark County, Wash., chapter. “Many signed the [First Freedom First] petition before and after, [and] some attendees stayed to discuss both TIA and AU projects and information.”

Smaller venues brought more modest, but no less enthusiastic, crowds. A showing at the Forum 8 Theaters in Columbia, Mo., drew 70 people.

Among them was Diana Townsend, a retiree, who told the local newspaper, “Thinking people should see this film…people who want to discuss these issues.”

“Everything You Always Wanted to Know…” featured a line-up of actors, singers and comedians mixed in with Americans who shared with viewers their personal stories of defending church-state separation on the front lines.

The event was taped in Washington, D.C., March 25 before a live studio audience and broadcast via satellite the next day to theaters in 37 cities. Hosted by actor Peter Coyote, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know…” featured performances by The Bacon Brothers (a band formed by actor Kevin Bacon and his brother, Michael) as well as in-studio comments by well-known actor Jack Klugman (“The Odd Couple” and “Quincy M.E.”) and performances by folk singer Catie Curtis, singer-satirist Roy Zimmerman and comedian Marc Maron.

Coyote kicked things off with a short introduction.

“We’ve gathered fearless and talented Americans together in a first-ever simulcast to take an unprecedented stand for separation of church and state,” Coyote said. “Our program is being broadcast to 37 cities across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, from Lansing to Little Rock, with the goal of making church-state separation an integral part of our national conversation.”

Coyote followed up with brief interviews of Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and TIA President C. Welton Gaddy. The two, who are ordained ministers, explained the concept behind the First Freedom First project and discussed the issues that drive it.

“Sometimes the separation of church and state can get to be a pretty abstract concept,” Lynn remarked, as he gestured toward large signs outlining the First Freedom First topic areas. “And we wanted to point out with these [issue] circles that there is an enormous practical intervention that the Religious Right wants to make in some of the intimate decisions of our lives.”

Gaddy concurred, telling Coyote that he was moved to lead The Interfaith Alliance because he believed it was essential that an organization work at “combating those who claim to speak singularly for religion though they didn’t represent many of us and our religious convictions.”

Those eight topic areas – No Religious Discrimination; End of Life Care; Reproductive Health; Democracy, Not Theocracy; Academic Integrity; Sound Science; Respect for All Families and Worship…Or Not – were explored throughout the evening by people who have been involved in various types of church-state disputes. (See “Uncommon Courage” on page 8 for a discussion of the topic issues.)

Interspersed with the interviews and information was plenty of entertainment. The Bacon Brothers kicked things off early in the show with a new song called “Children,” an impassioned plea to shield youngsters from religiously themed violence and hate.

Introducing the number, Kevin Bacon told the audience, “When we were asked to come down here and play, we thought it was a great opportunity to bring light to a very, very important issue….We have a song I wrote when I was thinking about how I would so often see discussions of war so closely related to discussions of God and so often the victims of war are children. So I wrote this song called ‘Children.’”

“Faith is not a weapon/hate won’t set us free,” Bacon sang. “You believe what you believe/And that’s OK with me.”

More stars appeared on tape, including Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years,”) Wendie Malick (“Just Shoot Me!”), Catherine Dent (“The Shield”) and acting legend James Whitmore, whose career on screen and stage spans 60 years.

Michael J. Fox, best known for his roles on the sitcoms “Family Ties” and “Spin City,” gave an impassioned plea via tape to end religious interference in stem-cell research.

“Our scientists have unprecedented resources to make tangible advances in human health,” Fox said. “So it’s incredibly frustrating to think of our government actively holding back any area of research, especially with an argument based on religious morality.

“Million of Americans are living with disease,” Fox continued. “I’m one of them – and whether it’s [Parkinson’s disease], Alzheimer’s, ALS, diabetes, spinal injury or what have you, if there are answers out there, we have the right to pursue those answers with the full support of our legislators.”

Adding a lighter touch, singer/satirist Zimmerman sent ripples of laughter through the audience with a rendition of his song “Creation Science 101.” Gently poking fun at advocates of teaching creationism in public schools, Zimmerman accompanied himself on acoustic guitar as he sang, “God made the world just like it is/He made the fossils just to tease us/Old bones to test our faith in Jesus/Yeah, this’ll all be on the quiz.”

Folk singer Curtis did double duty during the event. She was interviewed by Coyote about her experiences as the parent of two children in a legal same-sex marriage. She also treated the crowd to a new song called “The Princess and the Mermaid” from her upcoming album “Sweet Life.”

As Curtis sang from the heart about the challenges and joys of child-rearing, pictures of many different types of families flashed on a jumbo screen.

Before the night was over, attendees were treated to an impassioned address by the Rev. Madison Shockley, pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif., who spoke forcefully about the importance of reproductive rights.

“If human beings took anything out of the Garden of Eden, it was free will,” Shockley said. “Many submit that it is free will of human beings that most reflect the image of God.

“When a woman is faced with a medical complication so severe that the choice is between the life of the fetus and her own life,” Shockley continued, “she not only has the moral authority to chose her own life, but in regard to her other children who depend on her, her husband who loves her and her God who created her, she has a moral obligation to choose.”

Viewers also heard a monologue by comedian and Air America host Maron and were treated to a closing song by The Bacon Brothers.

The event, produced by Enrique Arias and Adam Klugman (Jack Klugman’s son), who served as creative director, attracted considerable media attention. The Washington Post and The Washington Examiner (a popular D.C. tabloid) ran photos of Kevin Bacon and plugged his appearance at the event.

Bacon, The Post’s Reliable Source column reported in a photo caption, was “singing out for the separation of church and state.”

In an interview with Fox News Channel that ran a few days after the event, Bacon explained what moved him to write the song “Children.”

“It is a song that I wrote serendipitously,” he said. “It has to do with God and war and how they get jumbled up sometimes, and how a lot of times it is the children that suffer from the combination of those two things.”

Bacon and his brother also expressed their support for the First Freedom First project. Michael Bacon told interviewer Greta Van Susteren, “I am a traditionalist. I think that is the way Jefferson saw it, and he saw a lot of things right, and I think it still applies.”

Kevin added, “I think that one of the great things about this country is that people of all the religions can come and practice and worship in a way that makes them happy and gives them a peace. And another great thing about it is that our government is not supposed to be based or tied to religious organizations.”

The program is available online at www.au.org and www.firstfreedomfirst.org. It will also be available soon on a DVD.

AU’s Lynn praised the celebrities who took time out from their busy schedules to attend the event and tape messages for it.

“I can’t thank them enough,” Lynn said. “Their star power, enthusiasm and professionalism made for an unforgettable night.”

Lynn noted that AU Field Director Beth Corbin, who oversees the First Freedom First project for Americans United, worked assiduously to make sure the program went off without a hitch. Corbin served as liaison with the production team and attended to numerous large and small details throughout the planning stage.

“It was great to see this event come together,” Corbin remarked. “The celebrities and church-state champions made it special, but I also want to thank all of the Americans United and TIA members, supporters and activists who promoted the screenings of the event and worked to fill the theaters.”

Corbin noted that positive feedback has been pouring into the AU office.

“It was a very special night,” Lynn said. “I hope it marks the beginning of a new conversation on the church-state issues that are so vital to the continued survival of religious freedom in this nation.”