GOP House Leaders Push ‘Values Agenda’ For Religious Right

Hoping to energize their base in advance of the November elections, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives unveiled a so-called “American Values Agenda” in late June.

The package of bills occupied much of the House’s time throughout mid July and was designed to address issues of concern to social conservatives such as religion in public life, abortion, flag burning, same-sex marriage and lawsuits over church-state separation.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported that Republican officials crafted the agenda after their “Values Action Team,” headed by U.S. Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) met with Religious Right leaders in May. Many Religious Right groups had been critical of the GOP-led Con­gress, saying not enough attention was being paid to their issues.

Unveiling the package, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), re­marked, “The American Values Agenda will defend America’s founding principles. Through this agenda, we will work to protect the faith of our people, the sanctity of life and freedoms outlined by our founding fathers.”

But critics charged that the legislative agenda had more to do with appeasing television preachers than honoring the nation’s founders.

“The leaders of the House are shamelessly pandering to their Religious Right base,” charged Barry W. Lynn, Ameri­cans United executive director. “The forthcoming votes on these measures hit a new low for election-year posturing.”

A summary of some of the bills follows:

• Pledge Protection Act: H.R. 2389 would strip the federal courts of their authority to hear challenges involving the Pledge of Allegiance. It passed the House July 19 260-167.

• The Public Expression of Religion Act: H.R. 2679 would deny attorneys’ fees to successful litigants in church-state lawsuits. Hearings were held in the House and Senate, but the measure did not move before the August recess.

• Marriage Protection Act: H.J. Res. 88 would amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. It failed in the House on a 236-187 vote July 18. The measure received a majority but fell short of the two-thirds necessary to advance a constitutional amendment.

Critics noted that some of the measures were passed even though House leaders know the Senate is unlikely to take them up. The House vote on the federal marriage amendment, for example, was superfluous. The Senate had already rejected the amendment earlier in the year.

At times, the House discussion took on the flavor of a theological debate. Several Republicans insisted that God backed the amendment.

“It’s part of God’s plan for the future of mankind,” opined U.S. Rep. John Carter (R-Texas).

U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) went so far as to assert that banning same-sex marriage “wasn’t our idea, it was God’s.”

Asserted U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), “I think God has spoken very clearly on this issue.”

Amendment opponents urged Cong­ress to stop meddling in religious matters.

“Marriage is a spiritual issue,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “That’s not for Congress to dictate, no more than it’s appropriate for Congress to dictate how much bread should be used in Communion….Why not just put all the sacraments in the Constitution?”

In other news from Congress:

The Flag Desecration Amendment failed in the Senate June 27 by one vote. S.J. Res. 12 is a constitutional amendment that would have given Congress the power to pass laws punishing those who burn or otherwise desecrate the Ameri­can flag. The measure fell short of the necessary two-thirds, 66-34.