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

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, May 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Boston, Rob, Church & State


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 I8 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. …

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