Like many people, I was appalled when the U.S. Congress, prodded by aggressive Religious Right groups, intervened in the dispute over Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose tragic story captivated the nation.
In mid March, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay called his congressional colleagues back from vacation to pass legislation he hoped would reverse the court-ordered removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube a few days earlier. The bill forced a new start to legal proceedings in her case, switching it from Florida courts to the federal courts.
This was an obvious case of heavy-handed intervention in what should have been a personal family matter, but the worst was yet to come. Within a few hours of the early morning vote to pass the legislation, I was listening to a remarkable recording of DeLay speaking that Friday afternoon to the Family Research Council. In it, the Republican leader had made breathtaking comparisons between his political status and the condition of Schiavo.
He claimed. “One thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America…. This is exactly the issue that is going on in America, of attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others.”
DeLay went on to complain that “the other side” was leading the attack, with a goal “to defeat the conservative movement.” He spoke of a “whole syndicate” of “do-gooder” forces that are arrayed against him in “a huge nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in.”
DeLay appeared to be saying that the same forces that supported the right of Terri Schiavo’s husband to remove her feeding tube were also trying to end his political career through ethics charges and grand jury investigations. From that premise, DeLay went on to promise that he’d fight for the Religious Right’s social agenda. He specifically promised action to change the tax code to allow partisan politicking in the pulpit. There was also no doubt that he was hoping the group would do some hard-nosed politicking for him as his ethics troubles escalate.
We had a discussion with reporter David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times who was very interested in the tape (which also contained evidence of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s hand-in-glove relationship with the Religious Right). When the story hit the front page the next day, everybody in Washington wanted a copy. CBS, ABC, CNN and a variety of print news services carried stories, and I ended up giving a lot of media interviews about it. (If you want to listen to DeLay and Frist, visit AU’s website at www.au.org.)
A few critics criticized AU as unethical “spies” for releasing the recording. To me, though, when powerful political leaders meet with the Religious Right behind closed doors to plot legislation that affects the fundamental rights of all Americans, the people have a right to know about it.
We released this tape because it demonstrated the dangerous power the Religious Right holds over Congress these days. I wanted people to understand that the same Religious Right activists that pushed the Schiavo case are also bound and determined to control almost every other aspect of the lives of Americans.
In their “pro-family” fervor, they want to control not only their own families but everyone else’s as well. They want to make decisions for all of us from the moment of conception until the moment of death, and now are prepared to tell you when that moment can occur.
The recording also underscored the blatant hypocrisy of the Religious Right. Leaders of this movement constantly moan about overreaching federal courts. Issues like Ten Commandments displays in courthouses, gay rights, abortion and religion in public schools, they say, should be resolved in state courts.
That’s exactly what happened in the Schiavo case. A local judge, George W. Greer in Pinellas County, oversaw most of the litigation, and the Florida Supreme Court backed him up. But Greer issued rulings the Religious Right did not like, so they forced the matter into the federal courts. So much for the value of state courts! What astounding hypocrisy.
In the end, their efforts were for naught. The federal courts rebuffed the Religious Right as well. By the end of the Schiavo fiasco, DeLay and his cronies didn’t know who to hate more: Greer or Stanley F. Birch Jr., the conservative federal appeals court judge (appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990) who blasted Congress and President George W. Bush for intervening, asserting that both “have acted in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers’ blueprint for the governance of a free people – our Constitution.”
What kept getting lost was that somebody must be allowed to make a final decision. I was very comfortable with a reasonable number of appeals on all of the contested issues such as medical care and guardianship, but when all is said and done there must be finality for there to be justice in our courts.
The wrangling over Terri Schiavo’s end gave all Americans an up-close look at the fanaticism and power of today’s Religious Right. They did not like what they saw. Here’s hoping it spurs them to stand up to Religious Right extremism in the months and years to come.
Americans need to remember this: If Religious Right busybodies can intervene into Mrs. Schiavo’s life in this unwelcome manner, they can just as easily do it to you or someone you love.
Barry W. Lynn is the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.