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March 22, 2005

Conservatives v. Conservatives on Religion & Rights

The rightwing court attack on federal protection of civil rights started with the overturning of what was known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law that required local governments to accomodate the religious beliefs of its citizens. The court used that precedent to strike down a range of civil rights laws, most notably the Violence Against Women Act which had allowed rape victims to sue their rapists in federal court.

However, evangelicals have increasingly sought to recruit converts in prisons and supported a bill five years ago to require state prisons to accomodate prisoner religious practices. The Supreme Court is now deciding whether to apply its federalism doctrine to overturn this law as well. Conservative religious organizations have filed briefs in support of the law, but conservative Justices seem skeptical of the law.

As the Terry Schiavo law shows, many social conservatives are rethinking their desire to give states free reign over local social issues and are suddenly finding an enemy in the legal doctrine "federalist" conservatives have created over the last decades.

The reality is that federal courts are no friends of individual rights; they are often more hostile to them than Congress when the ideosyncratic beliefs of various Justices are involved. The Supreme Court is increasingly trying to take onto itself the power not only to define what legal rights people have, but also the limits on Congress to expand those rights.

Liberals should pay attention that we have a case here, where a politically disempowered group, prisoners, were given rights to practice their religion by the political process, while it is the courts threatening to strip them of those rights. Here we have an opportunity to argue with religious conservatives for rolling back rightwing "states rights" legal doctrine, something to remember when nominees for the Supreme Court are questioned in coming years. Here is a "wedge" issue to attack a range of rightwing nominees on states rights issues.

Posted by Nathan at March 22, 2005 07:04 AM