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They Won't Stand on Common Ground

Concerned Women for America even takes on allies on the right when they're seen as soft.

December 27, 2004|Richard T. Cooper and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Among the droves of conservative Christian lobbyists arguing their points of view in Washington, one relatively little-known group has a simple formula for setting itself apart from the crowd: Don't give an inch.

Concerned Women for America always takes the most uncompromising positions. The group, founded 25 years ago in San Diego, almost never settles for half a loaf. And at the first hint of backsliding, it attacks its conservative comrades with the same fury it unleashes on liberals.

In a town run on the art of compromise, it is an unusual and lately galvanizing strategy.

"We're not just anti-liberal. We put principle above all," says chief counsel Jan LaRue. "We hold anyone's feet to the fire if we think that they're compromising on principle."

That unflinching strategy -- plus an $11-million annual budget, more than $200,000 in political action money raised last year and 500,000 members ready to flood Washington with letters, e-mails and personal visits -- has begun to make the once-marginal group a player to reckon with.

As the group's leaders see it, President Bush's reelection means their moment has arrived.

"I believe God has built up an army," says Lanier Swann, director of governmental relations, who moved to the organization from the offices of Sen. Elizabeth Hanford Dole (R-N.C.). "Following Nov. 2," Swann says, "they're ready to march."

What Concerned Women for America is ready to march for may be the most zealous interpretation of what it means to be a Christian conservative.

Like other such groups, for example, it opposes abortion and marriage for gays and lesbians. But the organization also objected to this year's proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage because, officials say, the language did not go far enough -- it did not ban civil unions. They hope a 2005 version will close loopholes that could have sanctified marriage by another name.

The group opposes hate crime legislation too, because it says making attacks on gays a special crime suggests the government approves of homosexuality.

In addition to drawing immutable lines in the sand, the group finds ways to advance its interests. So its antiabortion efforts not only include pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to rescind approval of the RU 486 abortion pill, but also seek enactment of the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act. That measure, to be introduced in the coming Congress, would require doctors to tell a woman seeking an abortion after 20 weeks that the fetus would feel pain during the procedure. It also would require doctors to offer anesthesia to both the mother and fetus.

Still another proposal would give ultrasound machines to all birth-control clinics -- so a woman would be "more informed about the life developing inside of her," said spokeswoman Rebecca Jones.

Religious liberty, as the group defines it, includes lifting the Internal Revenue Service ban on churches participating in politics. And it includes cheering judges who display the Ten Commandments in public places and championing courts that uphold the right of schoolchildren to say "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Robert H. Knight, director of the group's Culture and Family Institute, an in-house think tank, is among those who object to the use of nonspecific holiday greetings instead of "Merry Christmas." He says "millions of Americans are waking up to the fact that the phrase 'Happy Holidays' is less a happy greeting than a pointed assault on our civil liberties."

The organization also has been a leader in the attack on "Kinsey," the movie about the life of sex-research pioneer Alfred C. Kinsey. The "ultimate goal" of Kinsey and his followers, the group's website says, has been "to normalize pedophilia, or 'adult-child sex.' "

In the group's view, Kinsey and the movie reflect much of what is deplorable in contemporary American life.

"The agenda of the left is to make religion strictly private and pornography public," Knight said. "And the people behind this agenda, more often than not, are homosexual activists."

How quick the group is to attack those who deviate even slightly from its principles was illustrated by the recent fight over whether Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who supports abortion rights, should become chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Concerned Women for America joined other conservative Christian groups in prompting Specter to make a public pledge not to oppose antiabortion judicial candidates -- and to assure that all nominations reached the Senate floor -- as the price of getting his chairmanship.

But the group went a step further. It also criticized Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) when he defended his fellow Pennsylvanian. Santorum is a staunch foe of abortion and a champion of conservative positions. In a 2003 interview with Associated Press, he linked homosexuality to bigamy and incest.

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