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The Supreme Court & the Religious Right

By the People for the American Way Foundation

“The Religious Right knows that the future of the Supreme Court, and the country, is up for grabs in this election.”

Chief Justice William Rehnquist As in any election year, presidential candidates are staking out positions and filling the airwaves with promises and programs revolving around the politically hot issues of the moment. While these issues are each important in their own right, there is one issue with far-reaching implications that are only beginning to be discussed: the future of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's 1999-2000 term produced a multitude of important decisions on everything from reproductive freedom to church-state separation. Many cases were decided by narrow margins, highlighting the importance of the next President's Supreme Court appointments.

Given the age and health of the current Justices (three are over 70) it is likely that the next President will have the opportunity to appoint two, three, or even four new Justices, shaping the Court's direction for decades to come.

Presidential candidate George W. Bush has publicly stated that Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the current Court's most far-right Justices, will be the models for his appointments. One, two or more new Justices who share their judicial philosophy would drastically shift the balance on the Court, spelling disaster for myriad constitutional rights and liberties.

Right-wing leaders are well aware of what is at stake in the coming election and have been vocal about the importance of capturing the White House.

Pat Robertson has promised to distribute "no less than 70 million voter guides" and to "train and equip 10 highly motivated Christian activists in each of the 175,000 precincts in America."

Robertson has claimed that recent Court decisions are "utter tyranny." He called a ruling upholding separation of church and state akin to "... [T]he Nazis in Germany, the way they treated the Jewish people." He has focused on the need for new right-wing Justices to repeal Roe v. Wade, saying, "you aren't going to name those Justices without winning the White House."

The Family Research Council is likewise mobilizing its forces. FRC spokesperson Janet Parshall attacked the Court's recent 5-4 decision striking down Nebraska's "partial birth" abortion ban, but assured her listeners that there was still hope. "Several Supreme Court Justices are likely to leave the Court within the next few years. It is imperative that Congress confirm only judges who read the Constitution correctly."

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The FRC, along with over 55 other right-wing organizations, have formed a coalition to ensure that the Republican party re-adopt the pro-life plank in its 2000 platform, demanding that the GOP "maintain its commitment to the appointment of judges who will respect the sanctity of innocent human life" and put it into practice "when vacancies occur in the federal judiciary, particularly on the Supreme Court."

Gary Bauer, the former head of the Family Research Council who left to run for the GOP presidential nomination, made future Supreme Court appointments a central part of his campaign. While speaking at the Christian Coalition Annual Road to Victory Conference, Bauer complained that seven of the nine current Justices are Republican appointees and that "Abortion ought to be over! Gay rights ought to be blocked! School prayer ought to be back already!"

The fact that some Republican-appointed Justices have failed to carry out the right-wing agenda has led to a renewed determination to demand the appointment of individuals with untra-conservative credentials, with Bauer demanding that the GOP "be more serious about the men and women we put on the high bench."

Many other Religious Right organizations are also using the Supreme Court as a tool for voter mobilization. Concerned Women for America claims that Justice John Paul Stevens' majority opinion striking down a Texas school district's practice of opening high-school football games with "student-led" prayer "points out how critical the next choice of president is for appointing Supreme Court Justices." Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family claims that Stevens' opinion "ups the stakes in the presidential race, since [he]... tops the list of Justices expected to retire soon." justicestevens.jpg - 9.21 K Justice John Paul Stevens

The Court's decision striking down the Nebraska abortion ban also riled numerous right-wing commentators, including convicted Watergate conspirator and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries Chuck Colson. Even in defeat, Colson managed to find hope, pointing out that the 5-4 margin of the decision shows that the Religious Right is "just one vote away from changing the balance of the Court."

The Free Congress Foundation's Tom Jipping also attacked the Court's decision, though he sarcastically commended Justice Anthony Kennedy's dissenting opinion, stating that "When it comes to playing with the Constitution, Kennedy is like the drunk who needs a 12-step program... Though he falls off the jurisprudential wagon often enough to need help, here he stayed sober and did the right thing."

Most Religious Right leaders are satisfied with Bush's public statements that he will appoint "strict constructionists" in the mold of Scalia and Thomas, and they are giving him their full support. Dobson however, has cautioned Bush on his choice of a vice president.

When asked by Sam Donaldson on ABC's This Week (July 2, 2000) what the ramifications would be if Bush were to choose a pro-choice running mate, Dobson responded "What are we to assume if the very first decision that he makes contradicts what he implies by that promise to appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court?"

He said that Bush cannot win the presidency unless he appeases his base, "and the base is pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, basically evangelical Christians." Dobson later stated "I am warning him [Bush] on the abortion issue. That's the central issue with us... We've got to take a stand on it. And if that means that our favorite candidate loses, then so be it."

D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries is not waiting for the next president and future Supreme Court Justices. Kennedy is requesting that his supporters sign a petition blaming previous Court decisions for "school shootings, teenage pregnancy, sexual perversion, horrendous illiteracy and dangerous gangs."

The petition demands that the Court reverse nine church-state precedents "that contradict the intended meaning of the Constitution," acknowledge that the Ten Commandments can be posted in public buildings and allow the Bible to be used as a textbook in public schools.

The Religious Right knows that the future of the Supreme Court, and the country, is up for grabs in this election, and they sense that they may be only one election away from achieving the political goals that have eluded them for the past 20 years.

A Court dominated by Justices like Scalia or Thomas could lead to a drastic ideological shift that would have a devastating affect on our civil rights and civil liberties. The Religious Right is working to assure that the November election result does just that.

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