His talk is being sponsored by the Jefferson Center as part of its spring Thomas Jefferson Memorial Lecture Series.

One of the fundamentals of democracy, the separation of church and state, is under renewed attack from the religious right, says noted author Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who will speak Thursday in Ashland.

"In some ways this is the most dangerous time in my 30 years of doing this work, for that principle," said Lynn in a telephone interview. "There's a false sense of security that this principle is safe."

Lynn, a past guest on "Nightline," "Crossfire," "Larry King Live" — and who, to his face, was branded a "paranoid crazy" by conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly — will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Ashland's Unitarian Center, 87 Fourth St. Admission is $10, free for students.

His talk is being sponsored by the Jefferson Center as part of its spring Thomas Jefferson Memorial Lecture Series.

Lynn faulted the Obama administration for failing on its pledge to rein in the Bush administration's Faith-Based Initiative, which funded religious organizations. Some of those groups discriminate in hiring based on religious affiliation and work against gay marriage, Lynn said.

"Obama may be under the illusion he can give the religious right an inch and they'll be satisfied," said Lynn, "but they'll want to take 10 miles. They would prefer a theocracy, as long as they can be in control and can have a government that mirrors their religious doctrine."

Religious groups and others say the principle of separation of church and state can be taken too far, however. In Ashland over the holidays, for example, Bellview Elementary School Principal Michelle Zundel removed a giving tree from the lobby after a parent complained it was a religious symbol. The tree was reinstated after hundreds of people expressed outrage and the issue drew nationwide attention.

Lynn said he's speaking out against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because of its impact on the health care debate, "pushing for severe new abortion restrictions and leading the battle against same-sex marriage."

"We have a country that's supposed to make laws based on shared values of the Constitution, not the values of a church," said Lynn, who is a lawyer and a minister of the United Church of Christ.

"The so-called cultural wars are not over; there are just different characters doing it and we still have the threat of losing a fundamental principle of separation of church and state."

The principle is stated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Lynn said the "establishment clause," as it is called, means the government may do nothing to help or hinder any religion. The American public generally understands and approves of keeping the church out of politics, he said.

"People like the concept but when you get specific, they like one thing and not another," he said. "Like the display of religious symbols on public land at Christmas. They don't understand the issue. I wouldn't call the public asleep, just taking a nap.

"We've become a nation afraid of taking bold steps forward, as we did to solve the Great Depression or bring in Medicare. This discourages politicians — and it doesn't take much to discourage a politician."

Lynn will discuss upcoming Supreme Court cases involving a large cross in the Mojave National Preserve and on whether a state university can refuse funding to a campus group that bans gay members.

Lynn, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, worked in the 1970s for amnesty for draft-age men who exiled themselves in other countries during the Vietnam War. He was legislative counsel for the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union and has headed Americans United since 1992. He is the author of "Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.