The Rev. Barry Lynn doesn't mind preaching to the choir.
Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington organization formed to lobby for church-state separation, said he often speaks to audiences who already believe in church-state separation because he wants them to "sing louder and sing it in new venues."
"Often, issues are decided by a handful of votes, and I want them to hear new arguments about things like the flag-burning amendment and the federal marriage amendment," he said.
His remarks at Sunday's morning service at the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater were aimed at informing his audience of continued threats to separation, including congressional efforts to pass a federal marriage amendment, appoint religious-minded federal judges and limit federal courts' ability to hear cases on issues such as the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
All of those efforts have implications on public discourse, Lynn said, because they have blurred the line between religious institutions and government, especially in this election season.
"Separation (of church and state) is the greatest gift this country has given the intellectual rest of the world, and we change it at our peril," he said. When churches act as political advocates and politicians justify their actions by using their religious belief, that signals a dangerous shift toward the use of religion as a political battering ram.
"At our peril do we divide America along religious lines," he said. "We need to keep a respectable distance between the institutions of government and religion, and they will both be better for it."
Both major political parties have crossed the line in using religious institutions to impart a partisan message, Lynn said. He cited an appearance by Ed Gillespie, the head of the Republican National Committee, at a church in Miami in which he exhorted church members to vote for candidate John Kerry, and efforts by the GOP to gain access to church directories for direct-mail purposes to support President Bush.
Churches themselves have entered the political process in violation of their tax-exempt status, he added, by doing everything from distributing political literature to hosting campaign parties. Recently, some Catholic bishops created a furor when they told parishioners they could not properly receive communion if they supported Kerry, a Catholic who supports stem-cell research and abortion rights, stances that the Catholic Church opposes.
"If you are told to cast votes along religious lines, isn't that a theocracy?" Lynn asked. "Isn't that what we have condemned around the world?"
Lynn also spoke against Bush's support for government funding of faith-based organizations, which Bush has made a hallmark of his "compassionate conservatism" agenda, saying it has created an atmosphere in which certain religious denominations have the ear of the federal government in funding and political access. That favoritism has, in return, silenced some of the administration's critics.
"It's tough to be a critic if the government is buying your megaphone," Lynn said.
The Rev. Ahbi Janamanchi, minister of Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, said Lynn spoke at the church in the spring and agreed to return for a Sunday service. He said that church members are interested in issues of church-state separation.
Church visitor Carolyn Fischer said she thinks there is an increasing problem with churches making people feel guilty for not voting as church leaders wish.
"I have found that to be a problem and I've heard it from ministers. I believe (the political process) is getting to be more and more that way," she said. Fischer said she agreed with many of Lynn's points.
Janamanchi said he brought in Lynn to speak because his message was relevant during an election season. He said that even members of the church might not agree with Lynn's stance that church-state separation should be absolute.
Janamanchi acknowledged that Moveon.org, the political action organization lobbying to defeat Bush, rented the church's social hall one evening last week for a kickoff meeting to register voters and shore up support for Kerry.
Of the 80 people who attended the meeting, Janamanchi said only a handful were members of the church, and the organization paid the full $150 rental fee for the hall.
"We have also contacted Republican groups to speak," he said. "We try to be diligent about issues like that, although there are times when we slip."
Lynn said he thinks the increasing role of religion in the political process has created a backlash in which the faithful are rebelling against the prospect of their ministers telling them how to vote. Even the Rev. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention, decried the GOP's efforts to use church directories to gain access to church members.
"What we have to do is hold separation as part of our lives and our hearts and show respect to the 200 religions around the world," he said. "And politicians have to recognize that they take an oath to the Constitution, not to religion."
There are ways in which churches can properly participate in the political process, such as registering voters and holding civic events in which many political voices can be heard, Lynn said.
"In much of U.S. history, we have done well to remain a religious people without imposing our religious views on everyone else," he said.
"The U.S. is a healthy model of how it can be done. We just get sloppy about it when we depend on government largesse to fund religion and ignore the responsibilities of voluntary giving and effort."
Katherine Lee can be reached at 445-4151 or kkleesptimes.com.