The religious right is famous for zealously pursuing a socially conservative political agenda in courts and legislatures. Lest anyone think its power peaked during the culture wars of the 1990s, last year's Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby -- allowing some corporations a religious exemption from providing comprehensive healthcare coverage -- is a wake-up call.
Opposing marriage equality and limiting women's access to health care are two of its top priorities. Less well known is its strident opposition to campaign finance laws that reduce the undue influence of money in politics.
A new report by Common Cause highlights a web of large, well-funded conservative religious organizations that have joined forces with Republican political operatives to tear down laws that protect our democracy from special interest influence.
For example, over the past two decades, the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, the National Organization for Marriage, Focus on the Family and many of its affiliated state organizations and individuals have filed more than 70 lawsuits challenging campaign contribution limits, transparency laws and bans on corporate election spending.
Meanwhile, just since 2010, the National Right to Life Committee and the National Organization for Marriage, along with their tax-exempt "social welfare" affiliates and PACs, have dumped more than $11.6 million into federal elections. At the same time, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS contributed more than $4.8 million to the National Right to Life Committee in 2010 and 2012.
The attorney who files the vast majority of the religious right's lawsuits against campaign finance laws is James Bopp. Vice-Chairman of the Republican National Committee between 2006 and 2012, Special Counsel to Focus on the Family from 2004 to 2012, and General Counsel to the National Right to Life Committee since 1978, Mr. Bopp is well-connected to the partisan players and institutions of the religious right. He has been integral to these groups' scorched-earth efforts to unleash more money in politics.
After playing a pivotal role litigating Citizens United, Mr. Bopp told The New York Times that he has "a 10-year plan to take all this down. And if we do it right, I think we can pretty well dismantle the entire regulatory regime that is called campaign finance law." Representing a committee that wanted to broadcast sham issue ads without disclosing its funders (one of its ads asserted that President Obama supported early release for sex offenders), Bopp said that the "U.S. Constitution protects them from having to file that report. The problem is having to file a report at all. To be regulated at all. To be accountable to the government at all."
National Right to Life strenuously opposed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain-Feingold) when Congress passed it in 2002. That's the important law that prohibited political parties from raising tens of millions of dollars in soft money and curbed corporate spending to influence elections. "I'd say that for a member of Congress, voting against us on [McCain-Feingold] is even worse than opposing us on any one piece of abortion legislation," Mr. Bopp told the Washington Post in 1999. Subsequently, it has continued to oppose laws like the DISCLOSE Act that would provide needed transparency to political spending after Citizens United.
Mr. Bopp initially was unsuccessful in challenging the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold. The Supreme Court upheld the most important provisions of the law in 2003. But the shift in the Supreme Court's membership after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement has allowed him and the religious right to claim some major new victories that have chipped away at some protections.
Fortunately however, the religious right's efforts to oppose campaign finance disclosure laws are meeting a road block. Courts have rejected at least 20 challenges to various state disclosure laws -- many brought by anti-marriage-equality groups and affiliates of National Right to Life. Courts justify disclosure laws on several grounds: Voters have a right to know who is speaking to them in political ads; disclosure lets voters know to whom their elected officials may be beholden; and disclosure helps with enforcement of our campaign finance laws. Eight of the nine Supreme Court justices upheld disclosure requirements in Citizens United.
The religious right's well-organized efforts to deregulate campaign finance reform and unleash secret money into the political system do not represent the 90 percent of Americans who think it's important to reduce the influence of money in politics. And of course the religious right does not represent all people of faith. Last year a diverse coalition of 18 religious groups -- including the Franciscan Action Network, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sisters of Mercy, United Church of Christ, and Faith in Public Life -- called on Congress to do everything in its power to curb "the out-sized role of political donations" that have "distorted the electoral process and limited elected representatives' ability to truly represent their constituencies."
There is incredible momentum to enact common-sense laws that will restore the voice of the people in our elections. Small-donor public financing systems, enhanced disclosure to uncover sources of secret money, and better enforcement of our laws are all taking root at the state level. Eventually, campaign finance reform will pass in Congress too. It will take hard work, but we've been successful before and we will again. Tens of millions of Americans want it to happen.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently told an audience of law students that if there is one Roberts Court decision she would overturn, it would be Citizens United. She said that "the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle -- it is the pendulum. When it swings too far one way, it's going to go back in the other direction. I can't say when, but that one day, sensible [laws] on campaign financing will be the
law of this land. Yes, it will happen."
God willing -- or just as a matter of physics and organizing -- the pendulum will swing back toward common sense.