Church & State

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Christian-Themed License Plate Program Goes Too Far

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers of Columbia, S.C., spent his career working as a pastoral chaplain, where he promoted concepts such as interfaith harmony and respect among religions.

Now retired, the United Methodist minister was duly alarmed when he learned that government officials in his state planned to create a special license plate for Christians. A strong supporter of church-state separation, Summers quickly agreed to join a lawsuit sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State to stop the plate from being issued.

"As a resident of South Carolina for over 70 years and as a Christian minister for nearly 50 years in this state, I am incensed by the action of our state legislature in its approving the 'I Believe' license plates," Summers said. "I have spent so much of my ministerial career in interfaith efforts in hopes of healing any religious division. Sadly, these plates represent the governmental sanction of Christianity over the many other wonderful religious faith groups in our state.

"This arrogant action taken by the legislature is absolutely divisive, oppressive and is an affront to what true interfaith cooperation is all about," he continued.

The legal action takes aim at a specialty license plate approved by the South Carolina legislature last month. The so-called "I Believe" license plate features a large yellow cross superimposed over a depiction of a stained-glass church window. The words "I BELIEVE" appear at the bottom of the plate.

Americans United had warned Palmetto State legislators not to approve the specialty tag, pointing out that such preferential treatment for Christianity runs afoul of the First Amendment. Lawmakers were not swayed. Approval of the plate was among a spate of religion-themed bills passed by the legislature this summer.

Like many states, South Carolina offers a variety of special license plates that promote civic and community organizations. These plates typically cost between $30 to $100 above the regular $24 plate fee, with the sponsoring organization receiving a cut of the funds.

Organizations seeking special plates are required to prove, before production begins, that there is sufficient interest in the tag by putting down a $4,000 deposit or providing 400 pre-paid orders. Numerous organizations have gone through this process, including the South Carolina Chiropractic Association, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Free Masons and the Secular Humanists of the Low Country.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) says these special plates may contain the name of the sponsoring organization and its logo but may not contain other words, phrases or slogans.

In other cases, some organizations have approached the legislature to approve a special license plate. These plates are free from some DMV regulations and can feature an icon, a slogan or both. The requesting organization typically designs these plates and must submit a marketing plan before the tags enter production. The groups must still provide a $4,000 deposit or 400 pre-paid orders.

The "I Believe" plate is different. No group requested it. And, although the legislature has approved plates bearing the national motto "In God We Trust" as well as the phrase, "God Bless America," the "I Believe" plate marks the first time that the legislature has ever passed legislation approving a license plate that promotes a particular faith.

State officials chose the design for the plate and presumably will be responsible for marketing it. Eager to see the plate produced as soon as possible, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer has said he is willing to pay the $4,000 deposit, although he plans to be reimbursed by the state later. And Gov. Mark Sanford has ordered that the DMV charge no more than the cost of production for the plate, which has been estimated to be four to six dollars. Thus, the "I Believe" plate will be significantly cheaper than almost every other specialty license plate.

"The state has clearly given preferential treatment to Christianity with this license plate," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "I can't think of a more flagrant violation of the First Amendment's promise of equal treatment for all faiths."

Joining Summers as plaintiffs in the case are three other South Carolina clergy - the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight, pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Charleston and an adjunct professor of clinical counseling at Webster University; Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, rabbi emeritus at the Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia; and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia. A national religious organization, the Hindu American Foundation, has also signed on.

The Summers v. Adams legal action was filed June 19 in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. It charges that the Christian plate gives preferential governmental treatment to one faith and asks the court to prevent South Carolina officials from producing the special tag.

How did South Carolina get to this pass? Lt. Gov. Bauer and state lawmakers apparently picked up the idea from Florida, where some legislators and lobbyists pushed for an "I Believe" license plate. Although the measure stalled in Florida, it ripped through the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate, passing the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by a vote of 109-0.

The license plate push is part of a larger effort in South Carolina to erode the separation of church and state. State Sen. Larry Grooms, a Republican from Bonneau, has been the driving force behind this gambit.

Grooms went on something of a religious crusade in South Carolina this year, pressing for the "I Believe" plate and also sponsoring bills fostering prayer at public meetings and encouraging government agencies and public schools to display the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer alongside other "historic" documents. All three measures became law.

Grooms, a Southern Baptist and gas station owner, was first elected in 1997 and is known for pushing Religious Right causes. He sponsored successful legislation to create supposedly objective elective classes about the Bible in South Carolina public schools and has backed school vouchers as well. In 2007, he sponsored a bill that would have required any woman seeking an abortion to first look at an ultrasound image of her fetus.

In 2006, Grooms and other South Carolina lawmakers sent a letter to the president of Clemson University, protesting the school's decision to assign the book Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett to incoming freshmen. The memoir deals with Patchett's close, but non-sexual, relationship with another female writer. Grooms carped that the book was too racy for freshmen.

Grooms' religiously themed legislation attracted little controversy in South Carolina, where religious conservatives dominate, but national organizations like Americans United were watching developments carefully and continued to speak out.

The "I Believe" plate appeared especially vulnerable to a legal challenge, and the bill did give Gov. Sanford some pause. Sanford refused to sign the measure, allowing it to become law without his signature.

In a letter to the legislature, Sanford said he had some concerns about the way the plate was authorized. He called the process "unnecessarily complicated" and criticized the General Assembly for creating this plate.

Sanford also worked a little sermonette into his reply.

"While I do, in fact, 'believe' - it is my personal view that the largest proclamation of one's faith ought to be in how one lives one's life," observed the governor. "[The biblical book of] Galatians talks of the fruit of the spirit as peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and more - and, accordingly, if God is working in one's life, these things will say what no license plate will ever say."

Despite his qualms, Sanford is allowing the plate to go into production, leading to the AU legal action.

"The state has made believers of non-Christian faiths feel that they are second-class citizens," Lynn said. "Under our Constitution, that's impermissible."

AU attorneys Ayesha N. Khan, Heather L. Weaver and Nancy Leong address this matter in their legal brief. They assert that the law authorizing the plate "constitutes governmental speech because the plate was designed, proposed and approved by, and will be produced and distributed by, state officials. The passage of the legislation creating the 'I Believe' license plate, the advertising and marketing of the plate and the imminent production of the plate have the purpose and effect of promoting, advancing and endorsing the Christian religion."

The legal challenge is not South Carolina's first tangle over license plates. In 2001, South Carolina lawmakers approved a "Choose Life" license plate to promote opposition to legal abortion. Like the "I Believe" plate, the idea for the "Choose Life" tag came from legislators.

Planned Parenthood sued, and in 2004, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down issuance of the plate, holding that the state's refusal to make available an equivalent pro-choice license plate was viewpoint discrimination. (Planned Parenthood v. Rose)

South Carolina officials reacted to the Americans United lawsuit with anger - and defiance.

"For those who say this violates the Constitution by giving preference to Christianity, I think this lawsuit clearly discriminates against persons of faith," Bauer said in a statement. "I expect the state attorney general to vigorously defend this, and it is time that people stand up for their beliefs. Enough is enough."

But plaintiff Jones said Bauer has it wrong.

"As a citizen, I resent the fact that our legislature is acting in a way that favors one group of citizens," Jones, who serves as president of AU's Columbia Chapter, told the Greenville News. "As representatives, they are supposed to represent all the people. They aren't doing that; they are showing favoritism. If you're not a Christian, the implied message is you're a second-class citizen."

Jones' concerns were echoed by the Hindu American Foundation.

Suhag Shukla, the Foundation's legal counsel, called the state's action "divisive and just the kind of majoritarianism and political kowtowing that our Founding Fathers foresaw and sought to prevent."

"Hindus and adherents of other minority faiths," concluded Shukla, "are clearly rendered to second-class citizenship by this legislation."

Plaintiff Knight pointed out another problem with the plate: It debases the Christian message.

"As an evangelical Christian, I don't think civil religion enhances the Christian religion. It compromises it," Knight told the Associated Press. "That's the fundamental irony. It's very shallow from a Christian standpoint."

The day the suit was filed, AU's office was inundated with hostile e-mails from outraged Religious Right sympathizers, furious over the legal action. Lynn said the Religious Right's vituperation won't slow down AU for a minute.

Sponsoring the plate sent "a clear signal that Christianity is the preferred religion of South Carolina," Lynn told The New York Times. "And obviously we don't believe the Constitution allows this."

Christian Right Threatens to Ditch the GOP If the Nominee Is Like Giuliani

Focus on the Family Chairman James C. Dobson emerged from a top-secret, closed-door meeting of the Religious Right in Salt Lake City with some tough talk for the Republican Party: If you nominate a candidate who is pro-choice on abortion, I will walk.

Dobson does not plan to be alone. The New York Times reported Oct. 1 that the FOF head was among a collection of Religious Right leaders who met during a gathering of the Council for National Policy (CNP) Sept. 29. Movement leaders pledged to back a third party if the GOP nominates Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City.

The CNP, an umbrella organization of far-right groups, is normally very secretive about its activities, and talking to the press is strictly verboten. But this time it seemed at least some of the coalition's members were deliberately seeking media attention.

The Times reported that the talk about a third party "emerged from a group that broke away for separate discussions" during the CNP gathering.

"Participants said the smaller group included James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family, who is perhaps its most influential member; Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; Richard A. Viguerie, the direct-mail pioneer; and dozens of other politically oriented conservative Christians," continued the Times.

The story went on to say, "Almost everyone present at the smaller group's meeting expressed support for a written resolution stating that 'if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate we will consider running a third-party candidate,' participants said. The participants said that the group chose the qualified term 'consider' because it had not yet identified an alternative candidate, but that it was largely united in its plans to bolt the party if Mr. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, became the nominee."

Although the Times did not identify its source, it seems likely this explosive story was handed to the newspaper with Dobson's blessing to send a not-so-subtle message to the GOP: If you're thinking of Giuliani, think again.

Dobson and Perkins later turned up the heat. On Oct. 4, Dobson penned an op-ed column for the Times, reiterating that the threat of a third party is real.

Dobson said it is "problematic" to "choose a candidate according to the likelihood of electoral success or failure."

"Polls don't measure right and wrong; voting according to the possibility of winning or losing can lead directly to the compromise of one's principles," Dobson wrote. "In the present political climate, it could result in the abandonment of cherished beliefs that conservative Christians have promoted and defended for decades. Winning the presidential election is vitally important, but not at the expense of what we hold most dear."

Perkins, meanwhile, sent an e-mail to FRC supporters saying there is "no real desire nor are there active plans to create a third party" but quickly added, "What was agreed upon was what could be called a statement of principle, to the effect that if both of the major parties nominate a pro-abortion-rights candidate we will consider supporting a third-party candidate. ... I do think it is important that our movement draw a line that we refuse to cross."

The Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association promptly piled on. In an interview with the conservative Washington Times, Wildmon implied that the Religious Right may need to hurt the GOP to teach the party leadership a lesson.

"Every six months before an election, Republicans are our best friends, and six days after the election, they don't even know us," carped Wildmon.

He added, "Here's one thing I'll say about Republicans: They may not win with us, but they cannot win without us. The leadership needs to think seriously and long about that proposition."

Such threats and provocative rhetoric underscore that these are unsettled times politically for the Religious Right. As the presidency of George W. Bush winds down, theocratic groups are well aware that a period of unprecedented influence they have enjoyed for the past seven years may be fading away.

Bush, hobbled by an unpopular war and basement-level approval ratings, could always count on the Religious Right for support. In return, Religious Right organizations enjoyed easy access to the White House, the power to screen judicial nominees, tax funding through the "faith-based" initiative, significant input into policy decisions and other perks.

It's a lot to give up -- and the Religious Right does not intend to let it go without a fight.

But the Religious Right's desire to remain in the driver's seat is complicated because the GOP's crowded field remains wide open, with organizations and leaders of different groups lining up behind the various candidates.

Dr. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's lobbying arm, is clearly partial to former senator Fred Thompson. Jay Sekulow, chief attorney for Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, is backing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The Christian Coalition began saying favorable things about U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after McCain expressed his belief that the United States is a Christian nation, and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who dropped out of the race in mid-October, had made campaign appearances with "Christian nation" advocate David Barton.

Meanwhile, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, whom many expected to have natural appeal to the Religious Right, is struggling to break out of the pack. Huckabee has been making a series of appearances in evangelical churches, but so far it has not translated into many high-profile endorsements.

The Religious Right's splintering among GOP candidates has led to some rare internecine warfare. Days before issuing his threat to back a third party, Dobson found himself the subject of unwanted media attention because of a wayward e-mail message bashing Thompson.

The Associated Press in late September obtained a private e-mail Dobson wrote that was critical of the former Tennessee senator.

"Isn't Thompson the candidate who is opposed to a Constitutional amendment to protect marriage, believes there should be 50 different definitions of marriage in the U.S., favors McCain-Feingold, won't talk at all about what he believes, and can't speak his way out of a paper bag on the campaign trail?" fumed Dobson.

The harsh words continued.

"He has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent 'want to,'" wrote Dobson. "And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!"

Dobson's brutal attack on Thompson drew return fire from Land.

Land told David Brody, a reporter and blogger at Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), "I've received phone calls and e-mails from Southern Baptists about Sen. Thompson. They are all furious at Dr. Dobson. They just feel that, first of all, there was a mischaracterizing of his positions. Do I wish that he supported the marriage protection amendment? Of course I do. To say that he is for 50 different views of marriage in 50 different states is a gross mischaracterization of his position. Secondly, do I wish that he attended church every Sunday? As a Baptist pastor, of course I do. But does that make him a person of unbelief? That's harsh and unwarranted."

Days later, Land wrote a convoluted column for Baptist Press in which he suggested that it is better to support a candidate who agrees with you most of the time and who is electable over a candidate who agrees with you all of the time but who has a slight chance of winning.

Land used fictional names in his column and did not mention any candidates currently running -- but it's not much of a stretch to figure out what he was telling Religious Right activists: Don't waste your vote on a "purist" candidate who can't beat the Democratic nominee.

Wrote Land, "Do we choose the 'best' candidate..., knowing this may result in the ultimate triumph of the greater evil (the candidate you agree with 10 percent of the time)? Or do we choose the lesser evil -- or lesser good -- of supporting the more viable candidacy of the person we agree with 80 percent of the time...? Most religious, and many secular, ethicists would say that one should at least take such questions into consideration before making a final decision."

Thompson defended himself against Dobson's onslaught on Fox News Channel Oct. 3. Asked by Sean Hannity about the Dobson e-mail, Thompson responded, "Don't read too much into the Dobson thing. Frankly, that's the only one I've seen like that."

Thompson later called Dobson "a gentleman who has never met me, never talked to me" and said he had no interest in speaking with the Colorado Springs broadcaster.

"I don't particularly care to have a conversation with him," Thompson said. "If he wants to call up and apologize again, it's OK with me. I'm not gonna dance to anyone's tune."

This splintering during the primaries, many Religious Right activists fear, could open the door to Giuliani.

CBN's Brody offered this take after Dobson's Thompson-bashing e-mail became public: "While Dobson is getting the headlines this morning, the more interesting issue is just who will religious conservatives vote for in 2008? There is no clear cut choice. The top four all have issues. I wouldn't be surprised for voting in this block to splinter so much to where you won't have any one candidate getting the bulk of the vote. If that becomes the case, Rudy Giuliani is sitting pretty. Thompson, Romney and Huckabee need religious conservatives to back them in droves to defeat Giuliani. If it doesn't happen, then Rudy vs. Hillary [Clinton] is a real possibility."

Such a scenario would be Dobson's worst nightmare. Although Giuliani has been frantically moving to the right recently to appeal to the more conservative GOP primary voters, his record remains troubling to many Religious Right leaders.

Historically, Giuliani has been pro-choice on abortion. He has on more than one occasion appeared in drag. He has also supported gay rights. In 2001, Giuliani moved in with a gay couple after splitting up with his second wife, Donna Hanover. One of those men, Howard Koeppel, later told The Advocate, a gay magazine, that Giuliani was completely accepting of homosexuality.

"Mark and I double-dated with him and his wife, Donna, on New Year's Eve in '95 and '96," Koeppel said. "We spent the whole evening together, from dinner until 3 in the morning. It was as natural as if we had been an opposite-sex couple." He later added, "[I]f they would pass a law that marriage would become legal between same-sex couples, I would be the first in line. And if Rudy were still mayor, I know he'd perform the civil ceremony for me."

Giuliani continues to lead among Republicans in national polls. Oddly enough, Religious Right attacks on him may not be trickling down to the rank and file. The Washington Post Oct. 3 reported on a poll that found Giuliani doing well when respondents were asked which candidate they trusted on social issues.

Reported The Post, "Despite his support for abortion rights and gay rights, 41 percent of those surveyed cited Giuliani as the one they trust, with Thompson a distant second at 18 percent. There was no clear explanation for that finding, given a previous Post-ABC News poll that showed concern among many Republicans about Giuliani's positions on those issues."

If Giuliani were to get the nomination, would Dobson follow through on his threat to back a third-party candidate? Dobson has snubbed the Republicans in the past. In 1996, Dobson, unhappy with the GOP's choice of former senator Robert Dole as its standard-bearer, cast a vote for Howard Phillips, candidate of the far-right Constitution Party.

But 2008 probably won't be like 1996. In the '96 race, Dole never managed to present much of a challenge to incumbent Bill Clinton. With polls showing Clinton holding a double-digit lead over Dole just before election day, Dobson might have felt safe casting a protest vote.

A tight race next year might make such a move impractical -- especially if the Democrats nominate Clinton, who is universally loathed among the Religious Right.

The more interesting question is not what Dobson will do but what his followers will do. Although Dobson is much admired among the Religious Right, it remains unclear if activists will, sheep-like, vote as he says.

But Dobson does not have to take everyone with him. Even a modest defection of Religious Right voters could spell disaster for the GOP -- and that may be just what the party is facing. A Rasmussen poll released last month found that 27 percent of Republican voters would bolt the party if a pro-choice candidate is nominated - enough to significantly change the dynamic of the race.

Giuliani may know he has a problem on his hands. Early last month, The Hill, a Washington, D.C., newspaper, reported that Giuliani has decided to bypass many Religious Right leaders, whom he believes will never support him, and take his candidacy directly to activists in the field. Giuliani, it noted, has declined to meet with the Arlington Group, a coalition of Religious Right organizations.

The newspaper quoted an anonymous Giuliani campaign official, reporting that this source "said that Giuliani does not need the support of the nation's leading social conservatives to mobilize conservative activists. The official said that while Giuliani may not have met with the powerful conservatives who make up the Arlington Group, he has met with many rank-and-file conservative activists."

The paper quoted two Religious Right leaders who blasted Giuliani.

Paul Weyrich, a Religious Right warhorse, remarked, "You have a whole group of evangelical Christians who will not support him. Absolutely will not. I will not back Giuliani."

Michael Farris, a leader in the home schooling movement who founded Patrick Henry College, said bluntly, "Giuliani can't win. There are millions of people including me who will not vote for him."

The Hill noted that Giuliani has had more productive meetings with Robertson and Jonathan Falwell. Robertson has even hosted Giuliani at Regent University and interviewed him on "The 700 Club."

The relationship between Robertson and Giuliani is one of the unreported (and stranger) tales of the campaign. The two would seem to have little in common, but Giuliani apparently reached out to Robertson in February of 2003 after Robertson announced he was being treated for prostate cancer. Giuliani, who received the same diagnosis in 2000, impressed Robertson, and the two became friends.

Robertson praised the former New York mayor on ABC News in 2005.

"He did a super job running the city of New York and I think he'd make a good president," Robertson said. "Rudy's a very good friend of mine. He's a great guy."

But Robertson's support may be of limited value these days. The eccentric TV preacher no longer runs a political group, and he has increasingly isolated himself with intemperate rhetoric. Most analysts consider Dobson a far more powerful figure.

Aside from Focus on the Family, Dobson now runs an allied - more overtly political - group called Focus on the Family Action. Dobson frequently endorses political candidates as a private citizen (which he may legally do). In Washington, Perkins' Family Research Council, a FOF-related organization, also has a more political arm, FRC Action. This entity may also legally endorse candidates and has set up a special Web site with restricted access that promises to be more partisan in tone.

Only one detail remains: getting the churches to play along. FOF and the FRC are attempting to perfect a political strategy birthed by the Christian Coalition in the 1990s: mobilizing Religious Right voters through ultra-conservative churches and arming them with slanted "voter guides" that amount to de facto endorsements of candidates.

On Oct. 1, FOF and the FRC joined three other right-wing groups - the Alliance Defense Fund, Concerned Women for America and the James Madin Center for Free Speech - in issuing a letter to clergy purporting to outline their rights for political engagement.

The letter attacks Americans United for Separation of Church and State for supposedly seeking to intimidate pastors into silence. But AU has never said that pastors may not address issues from the pulpit. In fact, AU has pointed out repeatedly that the Internal Revenue Code bars endorsements of candidates from the pulpit, not discussion of issues.

The groups' letter includes a chart of do's and don'ts asserting that church distribution of voter guides is permissible. In fact, the IRS warns churches not to distribute voter guides that are biased or that examine a narrow range of issues.

One IRS document warns, "Although any document that identifies candidates and their positions close in time to an election has the potential to result in political campaign intervention, preparation or distribution of voter guides, because of their nature, present a particular risk for non-compliance."

In a press statement, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn warned members of the clergy not to take the advice offered by the Religious Right groups. The letter, Lynn said, is probably part of some larger Religious Right political scheme.

"I suspect that this joint letter is laying the groundwork for another church-based political movement," said Lynn. "I doubt if it will work. More and more pastors are catching on to the Religious Right's con. They realize that the Religious Right wants to turn their churches into cogs in some candidate's political machine, and they want no part of it.

"Pastors understand," Lynn continued, "that Sunday morning is a time for helping people connect with God, not for issuing slanted 'voter guides' that are little more than instructions on whom to vote for."

The Religious Right Has Had Its Day? Fat Chance

A provocative essay in Time magazine raised more than a few eyebrows in mid-February with a headline that made a startling claim: "The Religious Right's Era Is Over," it blared.

Moderate evangelical minister Jim Wallis, the author of the piece, confidently asserted that the Religious Right's day has passed.

"We have now entered the post-Religious Right era," wrote Wallis, author of the popular book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. "Though religion has had a negative image in the last few decades, the years ahead may be shaped by a dynamic and more progressive faith that will make needed social change more possible."

It's a stunning claim that might have sold more than a few magazines. But is it true?

A careful reading of Wallis' column reveals that his evidence for the death of the Religious Right could charitably be called thin: He asserts that younger evangelicals are deserting the Religious Right "in droves" and that a more broadly based evangelical agenda is emerging.

This new agenda, Wallis insists, will shift the focus away from divisive social issues like same-sex marriage and intelligent design and toward "poverty and economic justice, global warming, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, genocide in Darfur and the ethics of the war in Iraq."

Concludes Wallis confidently, "The era of the Religious Right is now past, and it's up to all of us to create a new day."

If the Religious Right is dead, someone forgot to tell that to many leading political figures. The unusually early start to the 2008 campaign season has been marked by a number of aspiring Republican presidential hopefuls contorting themselves to please Religious Right honchos.

One of the nation's leading experts on the Religious Right, John C. Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron, said that Wallis has probably overstated the case in proclaiming a post-Religious Right era.

"Wallis has a point about the Religious Right losing its near monopoly on political discourse in American politics," Green said. "The rise of the 'Religious Left' and the reaction of moderates means that religious voters will encounter a wider range of options at election time.

"However," Green continued, "it may be premature to claim that the Religious Right organizations will fade away or that their target constituencies will withdraw from politics. Indeed, the existence of other religious voices may lead the Religious Right to step up its activism in the short run. The last 30 years have shown that religious conservatives are very resourceful and not easily discouraged in the face of opposition."

Another Religious Right watcher, journalist Michelle Goldberg of the on-line magazine Salon, whose 2006 book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism is highly critical of the Religious Right, isn't persuaded by claims that the movement is dead.

"I sincerely hope that Jim Wallis is right. I also sincerely doubt it," Goldberg said. "Certainly, the movement has suffered some major setbacks, including the falls of Ted Haggard and Tom DeLay and the loss of Congress. But the Religious Right has been pronounced dead many, many times before -- after the televangelist scandals of the late '80s, after Clinton was elected and reelected and during the 1999 presidential race, when The Economist opined, 'The armies of righteousness, which once threatened to overwhelm the Republican Party, are downcast and despondent.'"

Goldberg noted that the 2006 election may in some ways have strengthened the Religious Right, since incumbents representing some of the last vestiges of northeastern moderate Republicanism lost their seats.

Is the Religious Right kaput? Even a casual glance at some recent news stories would seem to indicate otherwise. Consider, for example, the case of Mitt Romney.

Running for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney positioned himself as a different kind of Republican -- a socially liberal one. On the campaign trail, Romney vowed to defend legal abortion and be an even bigger champion of gay rights than Kennedy.

Today Romney sounds like an entirely different man. After losing to Kennedy and going on to be elected governor of Massachusetts for a single term, Romney has decided to seek the Republican presidential nomination. He now blasts legal abortion and plays up his opposition to same-sex marriage. He also accepted an invitation to deliver this spring's commencement address at TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University.

What happened? Political observers say the answer is obvious: Social liberalism might have been fine for a Massachusetts Republican, but it will never play well on the national GOP stage. To survive the primaries, Romney must placate the Religious Right -- and that's exactly what he's doing.

He's not the only one. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a man who once blasted top Religious Right leaders as "agents of intolerance," now seems permanently affixed to TV preacher Jerry Falwell and has been making the rounds of various Religious Right gatherings.

Even Rudy Giuliani, noted for his social liberalism during his eight-year tenure as New York City mayor, felt compelled recently to explain how much he personally loathes legal abortion on Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes.

"Where I stand on abortion is, I oppose it," Giuliani said during the Feb. 6 broadcast. "I don't like it. I hate it. I think abortion is something that, as a personal matter, I would advise somebody against."

Giuliani went on to explain that even though he believes abortion should remain legal despite his despising of it, he would have no problem putting limits on the procedure and appointing anti-choice justices like Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. He also stressed his opposition to same-sex marriage.

A week later, Robertson's Regent University announced that Giuliani would speak this month at an "Executive Leadership Series."

But Giuliani still has some work to do. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told the Associated Press in early March that he expects many conservative evangelicals to look askance at the thrice-married former mayor. Land pointed out that Giuliani appeared in public with the woman who became his third wife while still married to wife number two.

"I mean, this is divorce on steroids," Land said. "To publicly humiliate your wife in that way, and your children -- that's rough. I think that's going to be an awfully hard sell, even if he weren't pro-choice and pro-gun control."

Around the same time, McCain was working the crowd at the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention in Orlando. McCain's Feb. 19 remarks at a reception for NRB members was not open to the media, but the Orlando Sentinel reported that the Arizona senator reiterated his support for overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion. McCain also expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage, although he declined to endorse a constitutional amendment banning it. (Romney and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback also appeared at NRB-related events.)

Following the meeting, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, a rabidly anti-abortion group, told the Associated Press that McCain's visit was helpful.

"He recognized he cannot be president of the United States without reaching out to the evangelicals," Mahoney said. "There definitely is an uneasy relationship between McCain and people of faith, but he is reaching out and he is breaking down those walls. He helped himself in that room tremendously today."

Days after the NRB appearance, McCain spoke at a luncheon cosponsored by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle organization that promotes "intelligent design." McCain had previously endorsed teaching intelligent design in public schools.

McCain seems aware that his efforts to court the very religious conservatives that he once mocked are putting him in a difficult position. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that during a Feb. 23 McCain speech in Seattle, an audience member challenged him by asking, "I've seen in the press where in your run for the presidency, you've been sucking up to the Religious Right. I was just wondering how soon do you predict a Republican candidate for president will start sucking up to the old Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party?"

McCain replied, "I'm probably going to get in trouble, but what's wrong with sucking up to everybody?"

Although not an announced candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is also working to mend fences with the Religious Right. Gingrich, who has been making overtures about a possible run, appeared on Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson's radio program in early March and declared that he had "gotten on my knees and sought God's forgiveness" for moral lapses. (Gingrich was apparently referring to his extra-marital affair with a young aide. He later divorced his wife and married his mistress.)

Gingrich's confession that he had an affair at the same time he was attacking President Bill Clinton for his dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky has not rattled one top Religious Right leader. Falwell has invited Gingrich to speak at Liberty University's commencement in May and says he does not regret that.

"As a pastor with more than a half-century of experience of working with fallible people, I have ministered to a few men who have experienced moral collapse," wrote Falwell in a message to supporters. "I have usually been able to tell which of these men was genuinely seeking forgiveness for their actions. My sense tells me that Mr. Gingrich is such a man. He is today happily married to wife Callista, and committed to be the husband he should be."

As if all of this were not enough, the GOP field features two candidates who are closely identified with the social conservative camp: U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Both men have been staples at Religious Right gatherings over the past few years. (Huckabee is an ordained Southern Baptist minister.)

In early March, Huckabee traveled to Colorado Springs to meet with the executive board of Dobson's Focus on the Family. The Associated Press reported that Huckabee proudly pledged fealty to the Religious Right and took a shot at his rival Brownback.

Meeting with reporters afterwards, Huckabee asserted, "A Washington address is not an advantage." He urged the Republicans to rededicate themselves to a "family values" agenda and supported Focus' right to intervene in politics.

Huckabee is apparently the second GOP contender to meet with Dobson face to face. A video posted on YouTube shows Romney talking with conservative columnist Ann Coulter and Religious Right attorney Jay Sekulow backstage at the recent gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C. Romney is heard saying he had a "good meeting" with Dobson that "lasted almost two hours." Romney says of Dobson, "I think he's still open [to supporting me]."

These efforts to placate the Religious Right 18 months before the election would seem to indicate that the movement is not dead and that its activists are well poised to affect the outcome. How strong is the movement in the wake of last year's elections?

It's beyond dispute that the Religious Right is furious over November's elections, but that doesn't mean its leaders and activists are going to quietly slink away. In fact, evidence indicates just the opposite: These groups remain politically astute and are right now laying plans to use their political leverage to influence the lives of all Americans.

The Religious Right is well aware of the ground it lost in November -- and is busy making plans to regain it. In late February, The New York Times reported that the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive group of far-right activists, convened at a Florida resort for a closed-door meeting to plot strategy. Members are clearly anxious to make certain that the GOP nominates one of their own, even if they aren't sure yet who that is.

The Times reported that many CNP members remain suspicious of McCain, Romney and Giuliani -- despite the efforts of the three men to woo religious conservatives. Attendees heard from two hopefuls: Huckabee and long shot candidate U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.). Brownback, the Times noted, had addressed the group in October.

A certain amount of anxiety hangs over the CNP, reported the Times. But one participant was confident that the leading GOP candidates could regain the group's trust simply by recommitting themselves to its agenda.

"It's called secondary virginity," quipped Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. "It is a big movement in high school and also available for politicians."

The CNP isn't the only far-right organization looking to extract promises from the GOP hopefuls. The Family Research Council (FRC) has announced a 2007 "Values Voter Summit" to take place in October. The FRC event is likely to be something of a beauty pageant, giving attendees an opportunity to screen GOP presidential hopefuls for ideological purity.

For those who can't travel to Washington, the FRC is planning a big push for Web-based activism this year. Rolling Stone magazine reported that the drive will focus on videos and podcasts that the group hopes will reach millions in advance of the 2008 elections.

The Religious Right's message to the GOP is clear: Pay attention to us.

"We want to be sure that the lessons of the last election have been learned, and that the Republicans understand that we are not a lock for the GOP," Charmaine Yoest, FRC vice president of communications, told Rolling Stone. "When you're looking at razor-thin margins, you better pay attention to your base."

Such threats are the Religious Right's bread and butter. And in primary elections especially, which tend to attract more ideologically driven voters, playing to the base can pay off. The Religious Right's best shot at power continues to be making sure the Republican Party remains responsive to its demands -- a drive that so far appears to be working.

In the meantime, for many Religious Right groups it's business as usual. In Texas, the Rev. Rick Scarborough has announced a partnership with Religious Right activist Alan Keyes that aims to mobilize 100,000 "values voters" and 5,000 "Patriot Pastors" who will vow to "vote their Christian values on election day 2008." Further details remain sketchy, but Scarborough promises to use the project "to awaken a sleeping church before it is too late."

Falwell also has ambitious goals for 2008. Late last year, he announced plans to form a council of allied religious leaders to screen GOP candidates for ideological purity.

"We are hoping to find the next Ronald Reagan," Falwell said. (See "TV Preacher Falwell And Allies Hope To Find 'Next Ronald Reagan,'" January 2007 Church & State.)

Other factions of the Religious Right are busy taking aim at Democratic Party hopefuls. The Southern Baptist Convention's Land, who fancies himself something of a political powerbroker these days, recently remarked on "the Darth Vader-like specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency" in The Washington Post. Land, whose 16-million member denomination probably includes at least a few Democrats, seemed unconcerned about uttering such inflammatory and partisan comments.

Meanwhile, Charisma magazine, a publication aimed at Pentecostal Christians, is trying to knock Clinton rival U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) down a few pegs. A column in the March issue by Charisma publisher Stephen Strang praised Brownback and went on to incorrectly assert that Obama was raised as a Muslim, warning ominously, "Who would have thought that a man raised as a Muslim would become the darling of the liberal media and be put forward as a possible presidential candidate? I think you can see that we are engaged in serious spiritual warfare. So I am calling on all intercessors and all those concerned about the outcome of this election -- whether you are a Republican or a Democrat -- to pray as never before."

Religious Right groups remain active at the grassroots level as well. Their power tends to be magnified during the primary season, when only the most committed -- and ideologically driven -- voters show up at the polls.

This trend is even more pronounced in a state like Iowa, which chooses convention delegates through a labor-intensive caucus system as opposed to a primary. The Politico newspaper, a D.C. publication that covers politics, reported last month that Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance (ICA), is poised to play a major role in that state's Republican caucus.

The ICA broke away from the Christian Coalition a few years ago and quickly established itself as influential in the state GOP. The Politico called Scheffler "the man to see for Republicans courting the Christian right." The paper noted that during its interview with Scheffler, he took a phone call from a top McCain supporter in Iowa, inviting him to meet the Arizona senator.

The next president will probably see vacancies on the Supreme Court as well as have the opportunity to shape church-state relations in areas like "faith-based" funding, stem-cell research, the proper role of religion in public life and other issues. Too much is at stake for the Religious Right to decide to sit out the election.

Those skeptical of the claims of the Religious Right's death have history on their side. Wallis is hardly the first to announce the death of the Religious Right. The movement was proclaimed dead after Falwell shut down the Moral Majority in 1989, and after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.

More recently, some analysts predicted the demise of the Religious Right when Robertson cut loose the Christian Coalition in December of 2001. The group did indeed go into decline, but other organizations quickly filled the gap.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, whose recent book Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom scores the Religious Right for its theocratic tendencies, said no one should assume that the movement is on the ropes.

Lynn said Religious Right leaders oversee sprawling and well-funded radio, television and Web-based operations that reach millions of Americans daily. Their pressure groups are well established in Washington and continue to enjoy unprecedented access to many far-right legislators.

"It would be comforting to think that the era of the Religious Right has passed," Lynn said, "but I see absolutely no evidence that this has happened. Organizations determined to tear down the church-state wall are not going to give up the power they spent 40 years amassing simply because not everything went well for them during the last election cycle. These groups will continue to press their theocratic agenda, and we must continue to resist it."

The Theocratic Agenda Is Heading for a Statehouse Near You

Utah seems like a strange state to experiment with voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools.

Politically and culturally, the Beehive State is dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Seventy percent of the state's residents belong to the church. Most Mormons are content to send their children to public schools, where they are often released during the school day for religious instruction offsite. There aren't even many private schools in Utah.

Yet last month, the Utah legislature fast-tracked a sweeping voucher bill. It whipped through the House and Senate and was quickly signed by Gov. John Huntsman Jr. The measure contains no income cap and would offer vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000 to virtually every student in the state. Regulation is light: Participating schools would have to enroll at least 40 students, provide results of standardized tests and submit to an outside audit once every four years.

What happened? Voucher opponents say it all boils down to one acronym: ALEC.

The letters stand for American Legislative Exchange Council. This shadowy, but well-funded organization of libertarian-oriented business interests, put Utah under a full-court press.

The Salt Lake Tribune outlined ALEC's strategy recently: "Gather lawmakers in one place (with taxpayer subsidies), establish first-name relationships, then hand out 'model' legislation co-written by -- guess who? -- corporate America."

The newspaper quoted Alan Rosenthal, Rutgers University professor of public policy, who said, "From the point of view of the corporations, they have devised themselves an extremely effective organization." (The group's budget is $6 million annually.)

The Tribune noted that Utah Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble (R-Provo) is the state chairman for ALEC and that he traveled, on the taxpayers' dime, to ALEC functions in Chicago, Texas, San Francisco and Washington in 2005 and 2006.

Utah isn't the only state that faces a high-stakes battle over vouchers this year. Similar battles are brewing in Georgia, Texas and other states. These bills are examples of a new wave of attacks on separation of church and state in state legislatures.

The assaults are by no means limited to efforts to aid religious education. Other bills focus on issues like religion in public schools, controversies related to marriage, the display of religious symbols by government and the teaching of "intelligent design" creationism in public schools.

The spate of new state-based attacks on church-state separation is a stark reminder that the fight to maintain the wall of separation between church and state never ends. The outlook in Congress might be brighter in light of recent political changes, but many states remain roiling cauldrons of controversy.

"The states are always wildcards," said Rachel Joseph Marah, who has been monitoring legislative activity all over the country for Americans United. "Bills can pop up and begin moving with little notice. We always have to be on guard."

A recent survey by Americans United found bills threatening the separation of church and state pending in a number of states. A round-up follows:

Vouchers and tuition tax credits

Voucher advocates in Georgia are so desperate to pass a plan giving tax aid to religious and other private schools that they hope to sneak one in through the back door by exploiting a vulnerable population: students with special needs.

The measure, Senate Bill 10, also known as the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act, would allocate state money to students with disabilities, encouraging them to transfer to private schools.

When the measure was unveiled in January, Holli Cash, a member of the Cobb County School Board, was unimpressed.

Cash, whose daughter has Down's Syndrome, saw through the ruse immediately. By establishing vouchers for a sympathetic population, advocates could then expand the plan to encompass others.

"I think it's just another way to get vouchers for the chosen few," Cash told the Marietta Daily Journal. "It's just another voucher bill."

Cash noted that most private schools in the Atlanta area require testing for admission, and most aren't interested in taking on special-needs students.

Other opponents pointed out that some private schools offer therapies for special-needs students that are unproven and that these institutions tend to be lightly regulated.

The scheme may seem especially callous. Most parents of children with special needs are eager, after all, to get them the best education possible. Playing on these parents' concerns to gain a foothold for vouchers underscores the extreme measures voucher advocates are willing to employ.

Church-state separation advocates there say the fight in Georgia could have major implications. Voucher advocates, they fear, plan to use the special-education bill to force a test case in the state courts in an effort to drum up support for watering down the strict church-state separation language in the Georgia Constitution.

Efforts to overturn the language outright have failed in recent years, and voucher boosters may believe that a manufactured controversy over tax aid to religious schools in the courts will swing public opinion their way.

A similar strategy is unfolding in at least one other state -- Texas. Lawmakers there are pitching vouchers as a way to help students with autism and other special needs.

In addition, San Antonio businessman James Leininger is pressing the legislature to pass a law mandating that Texas take over a privately funded voucher program that he has run for the past 10 years.

Thanks to Leininger's persistence, voucher bills are a constant feature of the Texas legislature. He spent $50 million during the 2006 election cycle to aid pro-voucher candidates. Last month, Leininger and his backers arranged for thousands of parochial school students to descend on the capitol in Austin to turn up the heat on lawmakers.

The Austin American-Statesman described Leininger recently as "a quiet political force in recent years, shying away from public comment while giving pro-voucher candidates millions."

Aside from Georgia and Texas, at least a dozen states are considering bills that would establish voucher plans or offer tuition tax credits. They include Arizona. The state already has a voucher plan aimed at special-education students and students in foster care. The Arizona Capital Times reported in January that legislators are expected to push for an expansion of the program this year.

In South Carolina, a bill allocating vouchers for special-education students is pending. Late last year, a lame-duck session of the Ohio legislature passed a law expanding the state's voucher program by increasing the number of schools deemed academically struggling from 99 to 212. The new governor, Ted Strickland, is no fan of vouchers, meaning that the issue could resurface.

Based on bills introduced in previous years and measures that were pre-filed, staff members at Americans United expect to see bills offering tuition tax credits or deductions to private school patrons in Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. A bill that would subsidize private-school transportation costs is pending in California.

Some of these bills may be based on model legislation offered by ALEC. The corporate-run lobby sees states as a laboratory for its radical form of privatization of public services. (ALEC is so extreme it opposes the federal government's efforts to crack down on drunk driving by imposing a uniform blood-alcohol level on the states.) ALEC is offering model tuition tax credit legislation and voucher legislation aimed at children in foster care, based on the Arizona model.

The group's executive director, Lori Roman, is no stranger to church-state controversy. She formerly served as chief of staff at the faith-based office at the U.S. Department of Education. Previously, she oversaw school-choice programs for the department.

Faith-Based Initiatives

Several states are expected to see battles over expanding so-called "faith-based" initiatives or formalizing such offices.

A major fight is expected in Texas, where bills that would greatly expand the faith-based concept have been introduced in both the House and the Senate. The Senate version of the bill, S.B. 200, would expand the role of faith-based groups in programs relating to drug and alcohol abuse, marriage-enrichment programs and community revitalization.

Ohio governor Strickland has signaled an interest in restructuring faith-based efforts in that state. A report from Strickland's transition team has recommended that taxpayer-funded faith-based groups shift their focus from marriage-enrichment programs and efforts aimed at prisoners re-entering society to addressing poverty and children and families in the state. Some social conservatives are concerned about the move, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Creationism/attacks on evolution

The National Center for Science Education in California expects to see several attacks on evolution in the states this year. Two states got out of the box early. In New Mexico, Republican state Rep. W.C. "Dub" Williams introduced a resolution saying public-school teachers should have "the right and freedom to objectively inform students of any scientific information that is relevant to both strengths and weaknesses" of evolution and protect teachers from reassignment for doing so, reported the Albuquerque Journal.

Williams' strategy is in line with the thinking of "intelligent design" proponents these days: Rather than promote creationism head on, they push laws designed to undercut evolution by making it appear that the theory is not sound scientifically.

The bill was tabled in the House on a 7-4 vote but a version remains alive in the New Mexico Senate.

A Mississippi bill that would have required public schools to teach creationism alongside evolution appears to be dead. House Bill 625 was introduced by state Rep. Mike Lott, a Republican, but was rejected by a House committee on Jan. 30. Public sympathy for creationism runs high in Mississippi, but legislators were probably aware that the Lott measure would run afoul of the 1987 Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard, which struck down a similar "balanced treatment" law in Louisiana.

In an effort to be proactive, some Montana legislators have put forth a resolution criticizing intelligent design, but the measure is not expected to pass.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said he expects to see more proposed legislation attacking the teaching of evolution as the legislative year pushes forward.

"We would not be surprised to see anti-evolution legislation introduced in Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and possibly Utah," Branch said. He added that in some states, notably Colorado and Utah, attacks on evolution are buried in larger measures that purport to protect academic freedom or freedom of religion.

Other church-state issues

At least two states are facing attempts to pass laws approving certain types of government-supported religion.

State Sen. Chris Buttars of Utah wants to pass a state law that he says will expand religious liberty. Critics say it will open a can of worms. S.B. 1171 would ostensibly prevent government from interfering with the free exercise of religion. Opponents say the measure is unnecessary because those rights are already protected by the U.S. and Utah constitutions. They believe Buttars, a longtime proponent of Religious Right causes, is trying to find ways to increase governmental involvement with religion under the guise of religious free exercise.

Buttars' bill passed the Senate Government Operations Committee in January.

Among the most galling measures is a proposed state constitutional amendment in Virginia. HJ 724, introduced by Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr., would amend the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson, to permit government-sanctioned prayer and the recognition of "religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools." (The language is lifted from a proposed federal constitutional amendment offered by former U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma.)

In Kentucky, lawmakers will consider HR 4, a resolution that calls on Congress to pass a bill designed to make it harder for people to bring church-state lawsuits into the federal courts.

A similar but even more extreme measure is pending in Arizona. Sen. Karen Johnson, a Republican from Mesa, is sponsoring a bill that would bar state courts from being able to intervene in any cases that challenge "the acknowledgement of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty or government."

The bill, SCR 1026, is of dubious constitutionality. Nevertheless, Johnson insists she is serious. She told the Arizona Daily Star, "But we're supposed to have religion in everything -- the opportunity to have religion in everything. I want religion in government, I want my government to have a faith-based perspective."

Another strange bill has surfaced in New Hampshire. State Rep. Daniel Itse has introduced a bill that opponents charge would essentially ban clergy from performing same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Itse, who also backs a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, denied that is his intent. But opponents of the measure say they're flummoxed. Same-sex marriage is not legal in New Hampshire, although some clergy perform ceremonies for couples that are recognized only by those religious groups.

"I think it's meant to quash clergy who are talking about officiating at what they would define as a marriage and not caring whether or not the couple had a valid marriage license," Rabbi Richard Klein of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord told the Associated Press.

• • •

This preliminary list is by no means complete. As the year goes forward, Americans United expects to see more dangerous bills introduced in the state legislatures. Those that are not defeated may lead to litigation. Utah's voucher bill, for example, would seem a good candidate for court action. Two provisions of the Utah Constitution explicitly forbid diverting public funds for religious purposes. Several Religious Right groups, such as state affiliates of Focus on the Family, livid over last November's election results and the change of leadership in the House and Senate, are putting renewed emphasis on state legislatures.

In a recent message to supporters, Tom Minnery, senior vice president of James Dobson's Focus on the Family Action, cited the organization's work opposing stem-cell research in Missouri and legal abortion in South Dakota, both of which appeared on ballot referenda in November.

Although the outcomes were not favorable to the Religious Right, Minnery said he was cheered by the close votes and activism of the conservative Christian community. He vowed to continue the group's work in the states.

"The heart of it all is an informed electorate," wrote Minnery. "If church people understand the issues, and become motivated to act on what they know, they will turn this country around. The incredible swing in those Missouri polls and the stouthearted stand for life in South Dakota convince me of that. Yes, our side lost on both of these ballot measures, but, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, this was not the end, nor was it the beginning of the end; it was, rather, the end of the beginning. We will prevail eventually."

That vow, say staff members at Americans United, underscores that the Religious Right, despite political setbacks, never gives up. It's a reminder of why we shouldn't as well.

The Most Important Church-State Decision You Never Heard of

Television preacher Pat Robertson can barely contain his anger when he talks about a 1947 Supreme Court decision calledEverson v. Board of Education.

Robertson attacked the ruling on his "700 Club" several times last year. Everson came out of anti-Catholicism, he sputtered in January of 2006. Four months later, he blasted the decision because in it the justices "relied on a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists talking about a wall of separation that isn't in the Constitution."

Robertson is not the only one riled up over Everson. The case, considered a seminal ruling in modern church-state law, marks its 60th anniversary next month. Acknowledged as the most pivotal church-state ruling of the 20th century, Everson has become a magnet for both Religious Right broadsides and law review blasts from right-wing legal scholars.

Why is the far right so eager to discredit Everson? The case is crucial because in it the Supreme Court laid down a concise and wide-ranging definition of the First Amendment's religion provisions that have had a profound effect on church-state law. In addition, a unanimous court strongly endorsed Jefferson's assertion that the American people, through the First Amendment, have "erected a wall of separation between church and state." For anyone seeking to undermine that wall, discrediting Everson is job one.

The importance of Everson can hardly be overstated. Virtually every case that deals with the "establishment of religion" cites Everson. Federal judges use it as a touchstone when seeking guidance in contentious clashes over the proper role of religion in government. Its language appears in countless lower court rulings and legal briefs.

Yet for all of its importance, Everson is not as well known as high court cases over school prayer, displays of religious symbols or legal abortion. Everson v. Board of Education is hardly a household phrase -- but for anyone who labors to defend the separation of church and state, the ruling is a guiding principle.

"Everson was a seminal case," said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. "It set the tone for the Court's modern religion-clause jurisprudence and was significant because Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, a former Baptist Sunday school teacher, popularized the 'wall of separation' metaphor that Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson talked about in earlier days."

The Religious Right sees Everson in a different light. To "Christian nation" propagandist David Barton and other Religious Right revisionists, Everson was the vehicle the Supreme Court used to dredge up an obscure letter by Jefferson and make it the law of the land. Overnight, as this story goes, the justices created the wall of separation of between church and state -- motivated by their unrelenting hostility toward religion.

The Religious Right version is bunk, but that hasn't stopped it from being spread far and wide. As the nation marks the 60th anniversary of the decision this year -- Everson was handed down by the Supreme Court on Feb. 10, 1947 -- it's a good time to look at how the case came about, to examine what it really says and to ponder the legacy of the ruling.

Even a casual reading of the decision repudiates the Religious Right's pseudo-history. Far from being hostile to religion, the ruling in Everson actually upheld a form of tax subsidy to parochial schools. The case did not mark the first time the high court dealt with this issue, nor was it the product of a court full of rigid secularists. The justices were a diverse lot religiously, and there was a Roman Catholic among them.

By 1947, the court had already affirmed the right of private religious schools to exist in Pierce v. Society of Sisters and upheld a Louisiana law in which the state "loaned" secular textbooks to students in parochial schools (Cochran v. Board of Education).

Other church-state cases had come earlier. In the 19th century, the court had decided important controversies over the free exercise of religion in a series of legal clashes over Mormon polygamy and laid down parameters for government intervention in internal church disputes. A string of cases from the 1920s and '30s dealt with religiously based objections to compulsory military service.

Everson was not the first time the Supreme Court made note of Jefferson's wall, either. The Supreme Court cited the metaphor in one of the Mormon cases, Reynolds v. United States (1879). In this ruling, a unanimous high court mentioned Jefferson's wall-of-separation metaphor favorably, remarking, "Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] amendment thus secured."

Reynolds was handed down 68 years before Everson. So where did this notion come from that the high court invented church-state separation in the latter case? It was fabricated by the Religious Right, eager to discredit Jefferson's handiwork.

This distortion is possible because in the public mind the Everson case remains somewhat obscure. Few outside legal circles can name it or talk about how it came to be. The facts are easy to discern: New Jersey in 1941 passed a law authorizing local public school districts to provide transportation to students. Ewing Township extended its subsidies to pupils attending parochial schools. The move was promptly challenged in court.

Arch R.Everson, executive vice president of a group called the State Taxpayers Association, led the legal challenge. Sixty years after the fact, Everson's motives are difficult to ascertain, but media accounts at the time state that Everson was driven by principle. The amounts spent on busing parochial school students were not large -- in Everson's Ewing Township only $357 was allocated for it -- but Everson and his supporters argued that the government should never use any tax funds for private religious purposes.

The case plowed through state courts, with Everson winning the first round but losing on appeal. From the New Jersey courts, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was argued on Nov. 20, 1946. An Associated Press story about the two-hour oral argument before the high court noted that Everson's attorney, Edward R. Burke, a former U.S. senator who had represented Nebraska, made a strong argument based on church-state separation.

"To say that parents may not only be excused from sending their children to the public schools but shall be paid for exercising this choice is extending religious liberty beyond anything heretofore suggested and runs counter to the mandate of the separation of church and state," Burke told the justices.

But Burke's argument failed to carry the day. By a 5-4 vote, the justices upheld the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals and approved the bus subsidy.

This outcome would seem to take the wind out of the sails of those who argue that Everson was an anti-Catholic opinion or that it manifested hostility toward religion. The tax subsidy to religious education was approved, so where on earth does this claim come from?

Everson opponents zero in on a 174-word passage in the lengthy decision in which the majority, led by Justice Black, observed, "The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.

"Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion," Black continued. "No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance.

"No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion," Black added. "Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.

"In the words of Jefferson," Black concluded, "the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State.'"

The four dissenters also endorsed that idea -- but argued that the New Jersey plan was a tax subsidy toward religion that should be declared unconstitutional.

The dissenting bloc, led by Justice Wiley B. Rutledge, quoted extensively from James Madison's writings and warned that acquiescing on this demand for aid would only lead to more.

"Public money devoted to payment of religious costs, educational or other, brings the quest for more," Rutledge wrote. "It brings too the struggle of sect against sect for the larger share or for any. Here one by numbers alone will benefit most, there another. That is precisely the history of societies which have had an established religion and dissident groups. It is the very thing Jefferson and Madison experienced and sought to guard against, whether in its blunt or in its more screened forms. The end of such strife cannot be other than to destroy the cherished liberty."

Thus, in Everson, the Supreme Court unanimously -- including its sole Roman Catholic member, Justice Frank Murphy -- endorsed the idea of the wall of separation between church and state, even while arguing about how high it ought to be. When all is said and done, this is why Religious Right operatives hate the case so much and explains their belief that the high court "invented" church-state separation in Everson.

But the Religious Right's analysis is facile. As previous cases demonstrate, church-state separation had been discussed at the high court before. More importantly, the concept has even longer historical roots, stretching back to the battle over state-established religion in colonial America and the meaning of the "Establishment Clause" -- that part of the First Amendment that bars laws "respecting an establishment of religion."

In the Everson decision, the high court did not rely solely on Jefferson's famous letter. It discoursed at length about the history of church-state separation in America, noting the conflict that arose when government chose to take sides on theological matters.

The court also talked about Madison's influential "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." That document, written in the heat of battle over a Virginia law that would have compelled tax support for Christian clergy, is essentially a list of reasons why government support for religion is misguided. It led to the creation of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which in turn set the stage for the First Amendment.

"Everson did not create the concept of separation of church and state in American constitutional law; the First Amendment did," said Erwin Chemerinsky, Alston & Bird Professor of Law and Political Science at Duke University School of Law. "It is striking that all nine members of the Supreme Court saw the Establishment Clause that way. I believe that they are right that this is how the Establishment Clause is best understood."

Religious Right activists ignore or distort this history and, therefore, are unable to come to grips with the historical underpinnings of the Everson decision. According to Chemerinsky, critics also fail to understand how the justices used Jefferson's letter.

"They were saying that the concept of the Establishment Clause can be understood through the metaphor that Jefferson coined," Chemerinsky told Church & State. "Jefferson is a very important and respected person in American history. It was completely appropriate to quote him in the way in which he was invoked."

Unhappy with Everson's powerful affirmation of church-state separation, revisionist legal scholars have coined an alternate history more to their liking. Writing a briefing paper for the Heritage Foundation in June, Daniel Dreisbach of American University asserted that Jefferson would not support Black's version of the church-state wall.

Dreisbach argued that in Everson, "the Court essentially constitutionalized the Jeffersonian phrase, subtly and blithely substituting Jefferson's figurative language for the literal text of the First Amendment. In the last half of the 20th century, it became the defining motif for church-state jurisprudence. The 'high and impregnable' wall central to the past 50 years of church-state jurisprudence is not Jefferson's wall; rather, it is the wall that Black -- Justice Hugo Black -- built in 1947 in Everson v. Board of Education."

Another tactic used by the Religious Right is to assert that the Everson ruling is anti-Catholic. The argument is hard to sustain since the decision upheld tax aid for parochial school busing -- but has been made for 60 years nonetheless.

Black's conclusion to the ruling reads, "It appears that these parochial schools meet New Jersey's requirements. The State contributes no money to the schools. It does not support them. Its legislation, as applied, does no more than provide a general program to help parents get their children, regardless of their religion, safely and expeditiously to and from accredited schools. The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. New Jersey has not breached it here."

When all was said and done, Black approved the busing subsidy -- a curious act for a supposed anti-Catholic. In fact, the charge that Black was anti-Catholic stems from an earlier action -- his membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

At the time, the reconstituted Klan was seen as a vehicle for advancement in the Alabama Democratic Party, which controlled the state politically. Black, a native of Clay County, Ala., had political ambitions and served two terms in the U.S. Senate prior to his appointment to the high court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Black was a Klan member for about three years before he resigned and repudiated the group. The Klan was known for its anti-black, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic views, but on the Supreme Court Black gave the organization no cause for celebration. He repeatedly ruled in favor of civil rights, most notably joining a unanimous court in striking down racial segregation in public schools. After the ruling, Black was burned in effigy by segregationists in the South.

Nevertheless, several right-wing scholars have accused Black of being anti-Catholic, among them Dreisbach, Philip Hamburger and even Jay Sekulow, TV preacher Pat Robertson's top lawyer.

In his 2006 book Witnessing Their Faith: Religious Influence on Supreme Court Justices and Their Opinions, Sekulow notes that Black grew disillusioned with the Baptist faith he was raised in and in Washington attended a Unitarian church. Sekulow hastens to add, "While many of the theological doctrines and practices of the Baptist denomination did not appeal to Black, their separationist and anti-Catholic declarations found a deep resonance within him."

Sekulow's source for this is the writings of Hamburger, who accuses Black of anti-Catholicism as a way to impugn the separation concept. Hamburger's magnum opus is the misnamed Separation of Church and State, a 492-page screed against that principle. The reasoning is somewhat circular: Black was an anti-Catholic bigot. Therefore, Black supported the separation of church and state. Therefore, support for separation of church and state means you are an anti-Catholic bigot.

Yet the question of Black's alleged anti-Catholicism is not so simple. Some Black biographers, primarily Steve Suitts in his book Hugo Black of Alabama, defend Black against the charge.

More relevant is Black's behavior on the court. He not only approved bus aid for parochial school students, but in the 1948 case McCollum v. Board of Education wrote a strong opinion that helped end the de facto establishment of generic Protestantism in public schools.

Fifteen years later, in the school prayer cases of 1962 and '63, Black again ruled in a manner that favored Catholic and Jewish students in public schools. Many of these students were being compelled to take part in generally Protestant worship exercises in the schools; the high court's rulings freed them from unwanted religious coercion.

Black wrote the lead opinion in Engel v. Vitale, the 1962 case banning mandatory recitation of government-written school prayers. In several footnotes, Black points out the discrimination against Catholics that was common in colonial America where Protestant sects were established by law.

In the majority opinion, Black states, "The history of governmentally established religion, both in England and in this country, showed that whenever government had allied itself with one particular form of religion, the inevitable result had been that it had incurred the hatred, disrespect and even contempt of those who held contrary beliefs."

A common theme runs through Black's writings in church-state cases over his 34 years on the court. He was concerned about the union of any religion with government. His views are perhaps best summed up in this cogent passage from Everson.

"With the power of government supporting them," Black noted, "at various times and places, Catholics had persecuted Protestants, Protestants had persecuted Catholics, Protestant sects had persecuted other Protestant sects, Catholics of one shade of belief had persecuted Catholics of another shade of belief, and all of these had from time to time persecuted Jews."

Six decades after it was handed down, the findings of Everson remain under attack in some quarters. The decision has been cited in numerous church-state cases since then, but its core findings are now at risk. Virtually no scholar believes today's Supreme Court would unanimously endorse a high wall of separation between church and state -- and it's doubtful that even a majority would.

Everson's critics came on fast and furious in the modern era. In 1985, William H. Rehnquist, an appointee of President Richard M. Nixon who was put on the court in part to roll back the progressive views of the Earl Warren court, penned a bitter dissent to a school prayer case in which he attacked Everson's reasoning.

"There is simply no historical foundation," Rehnquist wrote, "for the proposition that the Framers intended to build the 'wall of separation' that was constitutionalized in Everson."

Rehnquist called Everson's lofty rhetoric "useless as a guide to sound constitutional adjudication" and labeled Jefferson's wall metaphor "useless as a guide to judging."

Other high court justices, notably Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, have since joined the attack. The Everson decision has also come under fire from Religious Right propagandists like Barton, whose gross oversimplifications and error-ridden prose tend to undercut his arguments, and from more sophisticated legal critics like Hamburger.

But Everson has its stalwart defenders. Justice John Paul Stevens stood up for Everson's core principles when he dissented in the school voucher case of 2002. Stevens wrote, "Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy."

National organizations have also rallied around the Everson language affirming the church-state wall -- even while disagreeing with the high court's conclusion allowing the busing subsidy.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) was formed in part as a reaction to Everson. While many clergy and leaders in public education were pleased to see the high court endorse the church-state wall, they were dismayed that a court majority had, for the second time, extended tax aid to religious schools.

AU's governing manifesto, issued on Nov. 20, 1947, cites the Everson case and the earlier Cochran decision, noting, "The four dissenting justices in the bus-transportation case solemnly warned the nation that these two breaches in the wall of separating church and state are only the beginning. 'That a third and a fourth breach, and still others, will be attempted, we may be sure,' say the dissenting justices."

The manifesto goes on to say that AU "is determined to assert its full strength to the end that there shall be no more breaches in this wall, that the breaches already made shall be repaired, and that the complete separation of church and state in an undivided state-supported educational system shall be maintained."

Alas, AU's founders were a little too optimistic. The high court did strike down more direct forms of aid to religious schools in the 1960s and '70s but began to drift off course in the '80s as more conservative appointments were made. In 2002, the court approved vouchers for private religious education.

Everson's downward trajectory and the erosion of Jefferson's wall underscore the importance of future appointments to the Supreme Court. A faction on the court is clearly hostile to Everson, while another bloc can be counted on as supportive. Neither probably has enough votes to muster a majority to either reinforce or undermine the ruling. Thus, the next few appointments are crucial.

No matter what the future holds, Everson will be remembered by church-state separation advocates as a seminal case, important for its clear explanation of the scope and meaning of the First Amendment's religious freedom provisions. Had subsequent courts embraced the Everson formula, church-state relations in America might look quite different. Vouchers and other forms of tax aid to religious schools would not have been upheld, and "faith-based" initiatives would be dead in the water.

"Everson's impact was profound," said Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United. "Virtually every church-state case felt its impact, from prayer in schools and tax aid to religion to displays of religious symbols on government property."

Continued Khan, "Justice Black's definition of church-state separation in Everson is probably the most well-stated and powerful ever issued by the high court. It's a shame the court did not stick with it. They might have spared the nation the raging 'culture wars' that afflict so much of church-state law these days."


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