States of Strife: Seeking New Fronts in the 'Culture War,' the Religious Right Is Turning Its Focus to State Legislatures

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, March 2009 | Go to article overview

States of Strife: Seeking New Fronts in the 'Culture War,' the Religious Right Is Turning Its Focus to State Legislatures


Boston, Rob, Church & State


Times are tough for the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. George W. Bush has flown off to Texas, and a Democrat sits in the White House. Equally alarming from the Religious Right's perspective, Democrats control both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

FRC President Tony Perkins isn't giving up. Recent e-mail messages from Washington's largest Religious Right organization have blasted President Barack Obama and the Democrats for the president's economic stimulus package. According to Perkins, the measure is really a pork-laden budget buster that will stimulate only more debt.

But it can be hard to motivate a crowd accustomed to the red meat of the "culture wars" with e-mails about bank bailouts and tax cuts. What to do?

For many Religious Right activists, the answer is obvious: Put the focus on the states.

State legislatures are increasingly becoming battlegrounds for the Religious Right's social experiments. This year, several states have seen conflicts over religious-school voucher subsidies, creationism, prayer in schools, government display of the Ten Commandments and other contentious issues--and it's only March.

"This is a familiar pattern," observed Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "Finding some of the halls of power in Congress less welcoming to them, Religious Right groups are becoming more active in the state capitals, hoping for a wanner reception there."

They just might get it. Religious Right groups had little to crow about on election night 2008, but they still managed to win four significant state-based victories: California, Florida and Arizona passed bans on same-sex marriage, and Arkansas banned foster parenting and adoption by unmarried couples, a move widely seen as aimed at gays.

The close California vote (52 percent to 48 percent) was especially significant. California is often portrayed as a bastion of liberalism, yet a well-funded, church-based campaign that brought together the Religious Right, the Roman Catholic bishops and the Mormon Church hierarchy was successful in pushing the ban over the top. (It is currently being challenged in state court.)

In addition, Religious Right organizations maintain a lobbying presence in most states. "Family policy councils" affiliated with religious broadcaster James Dobson's Focus on the Family exist in 39 states.

Usually located in the state capital, these organizations bring a Religious Right lobbying presence to lawmakers' doors. Relying on fundamentalist Christian radio stations and conservative church networks, they are often adept at mobilizing their flock to pressure legislators.

Religious Right groups also have many allies in elective office.

In the Lone Star State, for example, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) recently issued a report on the power of the Religious Right in the state legislature. A core of lawmakers in the House and Senate there repeatedly introduces "culture war" legislation over issues such as sex education in public schools, creationism and stemcell research.

The TFN report noted that until recently, the Texas House of Representatives was under the control of Speaker Ton] Craddick, who "made each session open season for Religious Right groups and their legislative allies."

Although Craddock no longer holds the post, TFN points out there are plenty of "key foot soldiers for the Religious Right in the halls of state government."

Across the border in Oklahoma, state Rep. Sally Kern (R-Oklahoma City) continues to wage a relentless crusade on behalf of Religious Right causes. Kern, who this year championed a bill to add more religious content to public education, appeared at a meeting of the John Birch Society in Oklahoma City in late January, where she outlined a massive--and obviously imaginary--conspiracy by gay groups to promote a nefarious agenda.

The Oklahoma Gazette reported that Kern told the crowd, "The theme of equality and freedom is the approach that the homosexuals are using today--totally perverting the true intention of what our Constitution meant. …

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