Supreme Court Opening Will Test Strength of Religious Conservatives

The contentious fight over O'Connor's replacement will test the political clout of Christian organizations.

WASHINGTON -- For the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the battle to replace retiringSupreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor isn't quite Armageddon, butalmost.

"This is do or die," Falwell said Friday (July 1).

For religious conservatives who have spent more than 25 frustratingyears toiling in the political vineyards only to see their positions on manykey issues -- abortion, gay rights, church-state disputes -- rejected by thehigh court, O'Connor's retirement is the moment they have been waiting for.

The contentious fight over her replacement will be perhaps the mostimportant test of their organization and political clout. If they don't winon this one, Falwell said, there's little hope for much else.

The court opening is especially crucial because, as conservativereligious leaders have learned, presidents may come and go, but SupremeCourt justices tend to remain for a generation or more.

At the same time, a re-energized progressive faith community thatemerged in last year's elections faces an uphill challenge in trying tosteer the court down a more centrist path, a fight in which activists saythe stakes are equally high.

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"Conservative Christians did play a major role in helping elect GeorgeBush twice, and they haven't gotten all that much in return," said AlanWolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life atBoston College.

"This is the one that is important to them."

The recent Senate fight over lower-level judicial nominees onlyreinforced how much conservatives want to see an end to "activist judges"whom they accuse of making law, not interpreting it. In many ways, thecourts -- and especially the Supreme Court -- have become ground zero forevery issue on the conservatives' agenda.

Leaders of the Christian right say now is when they expect a return ontheir investment in re-electing President Bush to a second term. They vowedto hold him to his promise to nominate someone in the mold of conservativeJustices Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia. "We have full confidence that hewill carry out that pledge," said James Dobson, founder of Colorado Springs,Colo.-based Focus on the Family, who left no hint of wiggle room.

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Kevin Eckstrom and Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
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