Man who fought to keep church, state separate retires, says he won

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A man who spent nearly 20 years trying to break church and state from the grasp of what he calls a Mormon theocracy is retiring from his post as head of an atheist organization.

In a state where 70 percent are followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and state policymaking is dominated by church members, most of Chris Allen's fights failed.

He has battled prayer in schools, graduation ceremonies and city council meetings; he challenged Ten Commandments monuments on public property.

He succeeded in banishing LDS missionary tutors from public school classrooms, a practice the church abandoned in 1998.

As he steps down as Utah's chief disciple of disbelief, the 55-year-old computer programmer insists he won his protracted philosophical war.

"We did a good deal of educating the people about separation of state and church," said Allen, who plans to return to his native Texas this fall. "So I feel justified that there is something of a victory."

Civil libertarian colleagues, and even an ardent foe, agree Allen was an effective, persistent voice for often unpopular causes.

"Chris is a zealot for his cause. He might not like the religious comparison of his fervor, but I think it is accurate," said civil rights attorney Brian Barnard. "(He is) a strong advocate of keeping government out of the business of religion ... even against a sea of opposition."

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the ultraconservative Eagle Forum, said she has come to like Allen, despite their frequent clashes over the years on religious expression issues.

"Chris has always been willing to offer his side and been articulate in doing that," she said. "He is a very nice man and polite -- he's just wrong."

Ruzicka's characterization elicits a smile from Allen, who chooses not to respond, at least directly. Instead, he launches into a lecture on the evils of religion in general, and the downside of the influence of Mormonism in Utah in particular.

"Religion is bad. It is mental slavery," said Allen, raised a Houston Episcopalian before doubts about the existence of God stirred during his years at Rice University and blossomed into full-blown atheism during a 1969-72 stint in the Navy.