Christian Conservatives Turn to Statehouses
Christian Conservatives Turn to Statehouses
By NEELA BANERJEE - New York Times, 12/13/2004
Energized by electoral victories last month that they say reflect wide support for more traditional social values, conservative Christian advocates across the country are pushing ahead state and local initiatives on thorny issues, including same-sex marriage, public education and abortion.
"I think people are becoming emboldened," said Michael D. Bowman, director of state legislative relations at Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian advocacy group based in Washington. "On legislative efforts, they're getting more gutsy, and on certain issues, they may introduce legislation that they normally may not have done."
It is on the state level "where most family issues are decided," Mr. Bowman said. And it is there that local advocacy groups hope to build quickly on the momentum from the election when legislatures convene in the new year.
In Texas, conservative Christians are backing an amendment to prevent human cloning, a measure that would also block the kind of cloning used in embryonic stem-cell research. In Georgia, advocacy groups hope to win approval this year of two measures limiting abortion, after redistricting helped Republicans take control of the state legislature. In Kansas, conservatives have won a majority on the State Board of Education, which is expected to introduce changes this spring to the high school science curriculum challenging the theory of evolution. And in Maryland, some black churches have joined with a white Republican state delegate to push for a ban on same-sex marriage.
"People were mobilized during the election and they're still mobilized," said Judy Smith, Kansas state director for Concerned Women for America, which is working to put a measure on the ballot in 2006 to amend the Kansas Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. "We would be stupid not to act now. This is exactly what we had hoped for."
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood cautioned that despite surveys of voters leaving the polls showing that President Bush was supported by 80 percent of those who listed "moral values" as their top concern, conservative Christians might not have gotten the mandate they say they have.
"It's important to underscore that there are large portions of the country that believe in gay rights and in a woman's right to choose," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
While Christian conservatives say the most promising legislative and policy efforts are in states that went for Mr. Bush, they are also optimistic about ballot issues they are championing in traditionally Democratic states like Maryland. While Senator John Kerry won Oregon and Michigan, those states also passed amendments banning same-sex marriage, said Kristin Smith, legislative coordinator for state and local affairs at the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying group in Washington.
Conservative Christians were active on some of these issues a year ago but largely switched their focus to getting out the vote in the months before the presidential election.
The legislative changes most conservative Christians seek are likely to be incremental - a tightening of parental notification on abortion, for example - mainly because legislators themselves tend to move cautiously, Mr. Bowman said. While the agenda varies from state to state and in some cases is still emerging, the initiatives generally have to do with abortion rights, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, sex education and the teaching of evolution.
Christian conservatives on the national level, like Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council, say that they have provided guidance but that the local initiatives are largely homegrown.
One state where liberals and conservatives expect a bold step is South Dakota, where conservatives were instrumental in unseating the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle. Last year, the State Legislature passed a bill banning abortions, except when a woman's life is in danger or she might suffer irreparable harm.
The bill was vetoed by Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, because of imprecise language, liberal and conservative advocates said. The wording was changed accordingly, and the bill will probably be reintroduced and signed this time by the governor, they said. Kate Looby, the state director for Planned Parenthood, said conservatives might feel more confident this time because they expect Mr. Bush to appoint Supreme Court justices who will eventually overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman's right to an abortion.
"If Kerry had won, there would not be the momentum there for this bill," said Rob Regier, executive director of the South Dakota Family Policy Council, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, a national evangelical Protestant group.
Electoral victories at the state level have prompted Christian conservatives in many states to renew the fight for causes that had stalled earlier. In Georgia, redistricting helped give Republicans control of the State House of Representatives, said Patricia Chivers, director of government relations for Georgia Right to Life. With the State Senate and the governor's office already controlled by Republicans, the change in the House has given Ms. Chivers new confidence that the state can pass two anti-abortion bills that she said had languished in the House under the Democrats.
One bill requires a woman to wait 24 hours after asking for an abortion, when she is offered information on alternatives, risks and pictures of fetal development, and another requires minors who want an abortion to be accompanied by their parents or guardians. Now, other adults can escort minors.
In Kansas, conservatives now hold 6 of the 10 seats on the State Board of Education. All of them favor teaching theories that compete with or criticize evolution, said Jack Krebs, a member of the State Science Standards Writing Committee and vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science.
In 1999, the Kansas board voted to erase any mention of evolution from the state science curriculum, opening the door for the teaching of creationism. That was reversed in 2001, after three board members who supported the move were defeated in a Republican primary. Kathy Martin, a newly elected member of the board who favors teaching alternatives to evolution, said the board would probably take a different route this time, like introducing the teaching of "intelligent design," a theory that holds that the development of the universe and earth was guided at each step by an "intelligent agent."
Liberal advocacy groups say they plan to fight many of these efforts. But Mr. Romero of the A.C.L.U. said that beyond filing legal challenges, liberals needed to appropriate the language of morality from Christian conservatives to capture the popular imagination.
"Lawsuits are about telling stories, and we need to talk about why we picked this case and why it's important," he said. "For instance, we need to ask, where is the morality when a partner of 20 years is denied hospital access because a state doesn't believe in gay marriage? Where is the morality in forcing a teenage girl into a back-alley abortion?"
Conservative state officials, like Ms. Martin in Kansas, say they are responding to an increasingly vocal constituency that has already made up its mind about moral issues and wants to shape public policy.
State Representative Cynthia Davis of Missouri prefiled two bills for the next session of the Legislature that she said "reflect what people want." One would remove the state's requirement that all forms of contraception and their potential health effects be taught in schools, leaving the focus on abstinence. Another would require publishers that sell biology textbooks to Missouri to include at least one chapter with alternative theories to evolution.
"These are common-sense, grass-roots ideas from the people I represent, and I'd be very surprised if a majority of legislators didn't feel they were the right solutions to these problems," Ms. Davis said.
"It's like when the hijackers took over those four planes on Sept. 11 and took people to a place where they didn't want to go," she added. "I think a lot of people feel that liberals have taken our country somewhere we don't want to go. I think a lot more people realize this is our country and we're going to take it back."