NEWS STORY: `Ugly’ Congress leaves religious activists disappointed

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Focus on the Family’s James C. Dobson and Mark J. Pelavin of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism agree on relatively little. The Colorado Springs-based Dobson is a leading ideologue on the religious right, while Pelavin is a mainstay of the religious left’s Washington lobbying corps.

But on the subject of the 105th Congress’ second session, they agree: It was pretty disappointing _ a sentiment echoed by other religious activists on the right, the left, and most places in between.”What a dilemma is faced by conservative Christians as they go to the polls on Nov. 3,”Dobson said Wednesday (Oct. 21), Congress’ final day.”Republican leaders have again abandoned their pro-family and pro-moral base without which they could not have achieved power.” Said Pelavin:”The best I can say (about the Congress) is it reminds me of a big car wreck with no one being hurt. It’s ugly and it ties things up. But it does no lasting damage.” The 105th Congress dealt with a variety of issues involving religious and moral principles. They included religious persecution abroad and religious liberty at home; abortion, contraceptives and assisted suicide; school vouchers, school prayer, tax cuts, civil rights, economic assistance, child protection and Internet pornography.

Few issues united religious conservatives and liberals. One that did was the International Religious Freedom Act, but only after months of wrangling over details. In the end, a host of religious groups across the spectrum supported the measure, which passed both houses of the Congress unanimously.

The bill, which makes the treatment of religious believers abroad a mandatory U.S. foreign policy consideration, was initially viewed with skepticism by many religious liberals, who saw it as an attempt by conservatives to politicize the issue.

After a series of compromises _ including giving presidents wide latitude in the law’s application _ the liberals, and the White House, gave the measure their blessings. Religious conservatives then hailed its passage as a highlight of the 105th’s second year.”This was a huge success. Very significant,”said the Christian Coalition’s Arne Owens.”It sent a message to the world that anti-religious persecution will not be tolerated.” At the same time, however, Congress failed to pass the Religious Liberty Protection Act designed to protect domestic religious expression. The bill was meant to replace the portions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act overturned by the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds.

The bill, which had widespread support within the religious community, died because a powerful minority of religious conservatives opposed it, arguing that it would unduly expand federal influence by using the government’s power to regulate commerce and spending to protect religious expression.”This is a longterm, winnable fight,”said Owens.”We just need the proper legislation.” Pelavin called RLPA a victim of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, saying the Republican congressmen”responsible”for moving the bill forward and ironing out differences with conservative critics”had their focus elsewhere.” For the Rev. Albert M. Pennybacker, Washington director for the National Council of Churches, a coalition of more than 30 mainline Protestant and Orthodox denominations, success on some”human need-issues”salvaged what he agreed was a generally disappointing Congress.

Pennybacker pointed to the 13 percent increase in funding for Housing and Urban Development Department-administered job training and economic programs. He also cited restoration by the Congress of food stamps for about a quarter of the legal immigrants who lost that benefit in welfare reform.

But Pennybacker criticized the Congress for not confirming the appointment of Bill Lan Lee as assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department. Conservatives opposed Lee because of his support for affirmative action, forcing the president to appoint him in an acting capacity.”Not confirming him leaves minorities in limbo,”said Pennybacker.”Until there is true racial equality in this nation, affirmative action cannot be dismissed out of hand.” Pennybacker was also critical of Congress’ linking of a payment of nearly $1 billion in U.S. dues owed the United Nations with abortion restrictions. President Clinton, saying the anti-abortion clauses left him no choice, vetoed the authorization bill.

Pennybacker termed the linkage”despicable political posturing”by conservative congressmen aligned with the religious right.”It’s irresponsible. The U.N. is all we have for dealing with international concerns and it deserves full U.S. support,”he said.

But Helen Alvare, the anti-abortion National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pointperson on the issue, said the president was the one in the wrong.

Clinton said current law already prohibits the use of federal funds to support international planning groups or pay for abortions abroad, making the riders on the U.N.-dues bill unnecessary. He also said the bill’s language would have prevented such groups from getting federal funds even if they used their own monies on abortions.

Alvare called Clinton’s position”extreme.””It’s really outrageous. The president knows that the law is skirted in a thousand ways. The U.S. government should not be involved in this sort of thing,”she said.

On other abortion-related issues, Alvare said victories in the 105th”were largely restricted to preserving what we already had.”As an example, she noted decisions to maintain prohibitions on the use of federal funding on most abortions, including in prisons and military hospitals.

But”a high-profile loss,”added Alvare, was the vote in favor of requiring federal health plans to cover prescription contraceptives _ some of which she said amount to forms of abortion because they work after the moment of conception.”We lost that one, and we lost it without even gaining a moral exemption to protect insurers or doctors who object to prescribing contraceptives to single women, for example,”she said. Those who object on religious, as opposed to moral, grounds are exempted, however.

An even bigger setback, added Alvare, was the Senate’s failure to override another Clinton veto of legislation that would outlaw the late-term procedure she and other anti-abortion activists refer to as”partial-birth abortion.” Other”pro-life”issues confronted by the 105th included an anti-euthanasia bill never fully considered, and a measure defeated in the Senate that would have made it illegal to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion.

In addition, Congress failed to approve measures allowing school voucher programs, which have the strong support of the religious right, but not the left, which says vouchers would further weaken the nation’s public schools.

The House also defeated the Religious Freedom Constitutional Amendment, another cherished political goal of the religious right. The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., would have put the word”God”into the Constitution for the first time and allowed organized prayer in public schools.

On the tax front, conservative efforts to reduce or eliminate the so-called”marriage penalty”and other levies viewed as hurting families were also largely unsuccessful. Dobson called the congressional failure on tax issues”among the greatest disappointments”of the 105th and an example of the GOP leadership’s lack of will.

The series of defeats for religious conservatives prompted Pelavin to say the right’s vaunted clout in Congress”clearly has been overrated … These things they wanted didn’t happen because they’re selling a message people aren’t buying.” Republican leaders _ despite their control of the Congress and close ties to the religious right _ did not push the conservative issues as hard as they might have”because they realize the votes aren’t there to override the president, and the votes aren’t there because those issues are out of step with mainstream public opinion,”Pelavin said.

Owens, the Christian Coalition’s chief spokesman, disagreed.”We believe we are in the mainstream, and our polling shows that to be the case time and again,”Owens said. But with a”slim”GOP congressional majority, a Democrat in the White House and the nation enjoying general economic strength,”the probability that there would be more significant movement either direction in this Congress was slim from the start.” Dobson, despite his anger at GOP leaders, said the key is getting additional Republicans elected Nov. 3.”Perhaps with a few more electoral victories, the rank and file will be able to secure better and more courageous leadership in the next term,”he said in a statement.”Beyond this hope of achieving a different character in the House and Senate, there is little reason to expect much change in the future, especially in the U.S. Senate. How sad.”


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