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Supreme Court choice could reignite culture wars

Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings could provide the spark on hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

By Staff writer / June 8, 2009

Domestic scene: Gary Chalmers (wiping table) and Richard Linnell are a married gay couple living in Whitinsville, Mass. They have a 16-year-old daughter, Paige, whom they adopted as an infant (far left).

Steven Senne/AP



Since taking office, President Obama has yet to utter the phrase “gays in the military” or “don’t ask, don’t tell” in public.

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That is by design. Mr. Obama knows well the lessons of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who stumbled early when he ended the military’s ban on service by openly gay people, only to retreat after an outcry. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the 1993 compromise that allows gays to serve, as long as they keep their sexual orientation private. But as president, he still has not fulfilled that pledge and has, in fact, taken heat for allowing gay service members to continue to be discharged.

For the most part, on issue after issue in the long-running “culture wars,” Obama has played it low-key. After all, he has a deep recession and two wars on his plate. But as the Senate prepares to hold confirmation hearings for Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, many of the hot-button issues dear to religious conservatives are about to come roaring back – foremost among them gay marriage, abortion, and the role of faith in the public square.

Judge Sotomayor’s judicial record on those issues is thin, leading to concern among some liberals. But social conservatives are convinced she will vote against their causes, and – short of unpaid taxes or some other scandal – believe she is likely to be confirmed. Still, they view the hearings as an educational moment that can help the Republican Party.

“We would be remiss to allow a confirmation without trying to probe on behalf of the American people to make sure a jurist is not out of the mainstream,” says Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values and one-time GOP presidential candidate.

He points to a conservative shift in opinion on at least one question regarding abortion. A recent Gallup Poll found that a majority of the American public, 51 percent, now calls itself “pro-life,” the first such majority since Gallup began asking the question in 1995. But Gallup also found that a majority, 53 percent, believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, and that 22 percent believe it should be legal under all circumstances – numbers that, combined, tilt away from the picture of a majority “pro-life” public.

The president addressed the abortion issue in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame last month, in response to the uproar over his invitation from the Roman Catholic university. His approach was classic Obama, aiming for a middle path. He acknowledged that “at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable” but called for a de-escalation of the rhetoric, urging both sides to stop “reducing those with differing views to caricature.”

When Obama announced his anticipated change in international abortion policy, at the start of his term, he did so in a way that minimized attention to the issue. By waiting until Jan. 23 to sign the order – which reversed the ban on US funds to international family-planning organizations involved in abortion – he missed the Jan. 22 anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Thus, he avoided an added insult to groups that oppose abortion rights.