Bringing the case against judges
Are 'activist judges' ruining America? That's the fear of a newly formed coalition of religious conservatives who are urging Congress to push back.
'Activist judges" are out of control and waging a war on faith, religious conservatives are charging. That's why - even as the United States Senate prepares for a battle over the president's judicial nominations - a conservative coalition is working to broaden the fight to the federal judiciary as a whole. Its ultimate goal is to force Congress to rein in the judges.Skip to next paragraph
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The Terri Schiavo case is but the latest in a litany of court decisions that have sparked conservatives' ire. Many were also outraged by rulings that called the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional and that removed the Ten Commandments and Chief Justice Roy Moore from the Alabama high court.
"An atmosphere of atheism is being forced upon us by the courts," says the Rev. Rick Scarborough, a Baptist pastor from Texas who heads the new alliance of Evangelicals, Catholics, and Jews that is leading the charge.
The coalition - called the Judeo- Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration - is unabashedly pressing for radical steps. Congress has the power to undertake these, it says, given its authority to establish federal courts under Article III of the US Constitution.
Proposed steps include withdrawing the courts' jurisdiction over all cases related to the acknowledgment of God or to the protection of marriage. They would extend to impeaching judges that substitute "their own views for the original meaning of the Constitution," or base a decision on foreign law; and to reducing or eliminating funding for the federal courts when judges "overstep their constitutional authority."
"This is the shot over the bow," said Dr. Scarborough last Friday in Washington, as the group - which represents some 40 organizations - held the first of a series of conferences it plans to organize across the country to marshal grass-roots support. "We are trying to restore this country to its constitutional moorings so we are ruled by law and not by judges," he says.
The coalition has backing from members in both houses of Congress, including House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas. Mr. DeLay addressed Friday's meeting via video, telling the group that the "judiciary has run amok" and that "Congress needs to reassert its authority."
Concerns about the judiciary are simmering on several fronts at once. Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee, who is trying to keep the focus on judicial nominations, responded to DeLay's statements saying, "We have a fair and independent judiciary today."
Dr. Frist is fighting for his own controversial plan - dubbed the nuclear option - to end the Senate filibuster so that Democrats can't block votes on judicial nominees.
Countering Frist's initiative is the Coalition for a Fair and Independent Judiciary - an alliance of human rights and civil liberties groups - which is mounting a public advertising campaign to save the filibuster and keep extreme right-wing nominees off the federal bench.
The one point on which conservatives and liberals tend to agree is that in a fight over the judiciary the stakes are huge.
"The future of the judiciary is perhaps the most important domestic priority facing the country at this time," says Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. Speaking to reporters on a conference call last week, CFIJ leaders worried that conservatives were seeking total governmental control.
"This president has the executive branch, the Republican Party has the legislative branch, and they aren't satisfied; they want the crown jewel of our democracy, and that is a fair and independent judiciary," says Nan Aron, head of the Alliance for Justice.
The new religious coalition strongly backs Frist's filibuster fight, but sees its effort in bigger and broader terms.
Pointing to the statement in the Declaration of Independence that the Creator is the source of inalienable rights, they say the US Constitution has a biblical basis and charge that the federal courts are seeking to turn America into a secular humanist nation by removing all mention of God from public life. In response, they assert the right to acknowledge God in various ways, from creationism and prayer in the schools to religious symbols in the public square.
"Without a recognition of God, we lose our freedom of religion," says former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was ousted from his post in November 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument he had placed in the state judicial building. A federal court ruled that the monument was unconstitutional, and the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
Moore received a hero's welcome at Friday's conference from the more than 200 activists who had come from 25 states. But his low-key, faith-infused talk was more the exception than the rule.