Right Hand of God

Two Texas leaders of the extreme Religious Right get ready to flex their political muscle

Late last year, Shackelford fought for the rights of Plano ISD students to hand out Christian pamphlets during winter-break parties. Liberty Legal is also representing former Texas Tech University student Micah Spradling, whose biology professor, Michael Dini, wouldn't give him a recommendation because Spradling believes in creationism, not evolution.

Shackelford compares it to an act of racism. The incident has received a fair amount of national attention, prompting Ellen Goodman of the Globe to take Dini's side. Rather than engaging in discrimination, she wrote in February 2003, "It's like refusing to recognize someone who doesn't believe in gravity for a Ph.D. program in physics."

Liberty Legal is also involved in Van Orden v. Perry, in which an Austin resident filed suit against the state to have the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Capitol removed. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the latter case on March 3, and Shackelford will be there to offer his legal opinion that "our Constitution has never supported censoring the religious history and heritage of our country."

Kelly Shackelford's Liberty Legal Institute tackles cases of government intrusion into religious expression.
Mark Graham
Kelly Shackelford's Liberty Legal Institute tackles cases of government intrusion into religious expression.
Top: Richard Ford, bottom right, and the board of Heritage Alliance; bottom: Ford at El Paso High School, where he was in ROTC and the choir
Top: Richard Ford, bottom right, and the board of Heritage Alliance; bottom: Ford at El Paso High School, where he was in ROTC and the choir

As Free Market Foundation president, he's also supporting an amendment to the Texas Constitution that would ban same-sex marriages. Though the Defense of Marriage Act is already in place, Shackelford worries that "activist judges" will deem it unconstitutional.

"Marriage is the fundamental building block of any society," Shackelford says. "If you erode that institution, you will erode--ultimately, I think, destroy--your society...These are things that are not sort of peripheral issues. They are the institution of marriage that was the first institution created by God. When you start tinkering with that, you're asking for trouble."

What critics of the Religious Right find most fascinating, and not a little distressing, is that even with all their power, they still act as though they're victims. They fight to protect their "religious freedoms," even though they're the dominant religion. They speak of tolerance, but they fight to keep homosexual couples from having the same rights and protections they take for granted.

"There is a long-standing fear in that community that they will be sold out," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the political online newsletter Quorum Report, who has covered the state Legislature for two decades and has known Ford for years. "As much as they loved Ronald Reagan, they feel he used social conservatives to get elected and turned out to be more interested in defense and the economy. Every organism tries to stay alive. That plays on the conservative paranoia, that they're going to be abandoned...The Republican Party plays the victim, as if they're still in the minority, and it rings hollow."

FreePAC no longer exists. It has been replaced by Heritage Alliance, which Ford says has yet to plant its first real seeds. The last two years, he says, have been spent "retooling" the organization, and there is a new Web site, a board of holdovers from FreePAC and a bank account with some $107,000 gathering interest, according to records maintained by the Texas Ethics Commission. Ford says the smear-mailer incident of 2002 garnered FreePAC so much support that it no longer needed to actively pursue donors.

"Actually, I had donors call at that point and say they wanted to give us more money," he says. "So that's why we had money to live on. But I've been restructuring and thinking, 'How can we educate more people?'"

Some aren't so sure: Wentworth and Ratliff claim that two of Ford's major donors called to apologize when they saw where their money had gone and vowed to withdraw their support; one even gave Wentworth the same amount he'd donated to FreePAC. Wentworth and Kronberg say Ford has become a non-entity in Austin since 2002; they believe he's retreated but will not stay gone, not when his people are in power.

"There is some danger in everyone capitulating that the '04 elections were the elections of moral values," Kathy Miller says. "They can embolden elected leaders to push a much more extreme agenda than they have in the past. It is also dangerous because it emboldens these groups to do more grassroots message dissemination. Groups like FreePAC and Liberty Legal and Free Market like nothing better than this conversation about how they own moral values. It is an emboldened group, particularly in Texas. They see lawsuits as an effective strategy partly because they found more acceptance in the courts, and as more and more leaders are elected in the various branches of government receptive to their arguments, they will develop new strategies to promote their agenda."

Miller's complaints are fine with Ford and Shackelford.

"I figure if people don't like you or hate you, then you probably haven't said anything of value," Shackelford says. "A lot of people hated Jesus, too. The truth divides. It always has; it always will."

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