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. "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.
In fact, many conservatives said they were happy to see O'Connor go,pointing to her critical vote in Supreme Court majorities that upheldabortion, decriminalized gay sex and ruled on numerous church-state issues. A better model, they say, would be Robert Bork, the Reagan nominee whosebid for the court was torpedoed in 1987 over his conservative record. Hiseventual replacement, Justice Anthony Kennedy, has emerged as amoderate-to-liberal voice that has angered many conservatives. "I and other pro-family Americans are fiercely determined to not letthat happen again," said the Rev. D. James Kennedy, president of Coral RidgeMinistries in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "We will not rest, we will spare noexpense, we will leave no action undone in the service of restoringconstitutional jurisprudence to America's high court." Because O'Connor was a crucial swing vote on so many cases, manyconservative groups are prepared for a bare-knuckled -- and possibly ugly --fight over her successor. "If the past is prologue, we don't ever want to see another `Borking'done to any candidate the president might put forward," said Connie Mackey,Focus on the Family's vice president of government affairs. "In that sensewe are prepared to fight." However, a recent unsuccessful bid to kill the judicial filibuster, atime-honored technique that has been used by Senate Democrats to stall someBush nominees, shows that conservatives don't always get everything theywant -- even with massive resources and a GOP majority. The optimism and confidence of the Christian right was sharplycontrasted by the doomsday scenarios painted by liberal groups, who saylosing O'Connor's moderate voice is a frightening prospect. The Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation ofChurch and State, said if Bush nominates a favorite of his conservativereligious base, it could be "a declaration of Armageddon." "If the person that replaces Sandra Day O'Connor is not a centristconservative, then I can see the street sign for `Doomsday,"' he said."We're not on it yet, but I can see the street ahead." Indeed, the cards are stacked in conservatives' favor, with a presidentwhom they consider one of their own and a Republican majority in the Senatethat is wide enough to nearly assure a confirmation. The bigger challenge will be for liberals -- religious and otherwise --to try to fend off a well-funded, well-organized push by conservativeChristian leaders for a conservative justice. Mark Pelavin, associatedirector of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he'spreparing "for the worst-case scenario."
"I know ... that some of the Christian right groups are going to devoteastronomical resources to this fight," he said. "That's going to be part ofa challenge, to make our voices heard without the same kind of money behindus."