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The religious wars


The outcome of the 2004 presidential election will depend partly on what happens in Iraq and to the U.S. economy between now and Election Day.

But it will also turn on the religious wars -- the intensifying battles over gay marriage, abortion, the use of human embryos for stem-cell research, and religion in our public schools -- fueled by evangelical Protestants, the ground troops of the Republican Party. The conventional wisdom is that these issues are sure winners for the right. But Democrats can hold their own in these wars -- if they respond vigorously to the coming assault.

Since last summer's Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, overturning Texas' anti-sodomy law, evangelicals have grown louder.

Now that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has declared that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry, evangelicals are ready to make gay marriage a major presidential campaign issue. Their recent legislative victory over "partial-birth" abortions has emboldened them to seek additional ways to erode Roe v. Wade. They're mounting an all-out offensive for Senate confirmation of people like Alabama's attorney general, William Pryor -- who called Roe "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history" -- to the federal courts. And they're determined to put religion back into the public schools.

Democrats should call all this for what it is -- a clear and present danger to religious liberty in America. For more than 300 years, the liberal tradition has sought to free people from the tyranny of religious doctrines that would otherwise be imposed on them.

Today's evangelical right detests that tradition and seeks nothing short of a state-sponsored religion. But maintaining the separation of church and state is a necessary precondition of liberty.

Public opinion sides with the Democrats. Even though a slim majority continues to oppose gay marriage, polls show that most Americans believe that homosexual relationships between consenting adults should be legal, that the choice of whether to have an abortion should be up to a woman and her doctor, that stem-cell research should be legal, and that religion should stay out of the public schools.

But unless Democrats focus the public's attention on the larger ongoing assault on religious liberty, the evangelical right will whittle away these freedoms.

Gay marriage doesn't have to be a wedge issue for the evangelicals -- not if Democrats can put it where it belongs, as another front in the religious wars. The question of whether gay couples should be treated the same as married people need not and should not involve the religious meaning of "marriage." That's up to particular faiths and congregations to decide. The issue here is whether gays should have the same legal rights as heterosexuals -- survivor's benefits under Social Security, alimony, the distribution of assets when relationships end in divorce, and other legal privileges now conferred only on heterosexual couples.

Democrats should make clear that this is an issue about state power, not religion -- and call for gay civil rights. Not "marriage," but "domestic partnership" or "civil union" or whatever words will convey the same legal rights accorded heterosexuals. Most Americans think the law shouldn't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. It follows that gays should have the same legal rights.

The evangelicals' victory on "partial-birth" abortion proves only that gruesome pictures and inflamed comments can persuade a majority that a particular procedure is inhumane. It has no bearing on the more basic question of whether the evangelical view about when life begins should be imposed on the rest of America. Democrats should be clear that the issues of abortion and stem-cell research are about religious liberty. Tar the Republicans and the evangelicals with Pryor and other nominees who want to overrule Roe. Show that the Senate Democrats' filibuster of these nominees is another front in the same religious war.

Likewise, Democrats should hold evangelicals accountable for what they're trying to do in our nation's schools -- promoting the teaching of creationism, demanding school prayer, pushing "abstinence until marriage" programs, and opposing sex education. This is all about imposing their religious views on our children.

The religious wars aren't pretty. Religious wars never are. But Democrats should mount a firm and clear counter-assault. In the months leading up to Election Day, when Republicans are screaming about God and accusing the Democrats of siding with sexual deviants and baby killers, Democrats should remind Americans that however important religion is to our spiritual lives, there is no room for liberty in a theocracy.

Robert B. Reich served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor during President Clinton's first term.

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