Judges And The Ballot Box: Religious Right Intervention In Judicial Election Sparks Controversy

Judges and other public officials should never elevate a narrow interpretation of God’s law above the Constitution or federal and state laws.

California seems to be the breeding ground for lots of new ideas – some good and some not so good.

Back in the early 1990s, Religious Right activists in the Golden State got it into their heads to promote “stealth candidates.” The idea was that fundamentalist Christians would run for local office stressing themes like low taxation and fiscal responsibility. They kept their extreme views on social issues hidden.

The scheme worked for a time. But once the candidates won office, it quickly became apparent that they were obsessed with social issues. Voters rejected them at the ballot box at the first opportunity.

Now a Religious Right movement called “Better Courts Now” is taking aim at state judges. California has an elected judiciary, and usually the elections are routine affairs marked by low voter turnout. Better Courts Now wants to change that and put its slate of candidates on the state bench.

The group was founded by a pastor named Don Hamer of Zion Christian Fellowship, who was prominent in the battle to end same-sex marriage in California. Hamer has since died, and the crusade is currently being led by Zion’s new pastor, Brian Hendry.

Zion Christian Fellowship’s Web site describes the church’s “Salt & Light Ministry” in political terms. It aims to “improve and enhance the witness of Jesus Christ in the areas of government, politics and social issues. It does this by appropriately involving the local church to influence its community, culture and government.”

One of the ministry’s goals, the web site says, is “raising up candidates for office that hold our values.” The Associated Press says Hamer vetted the candidates chosen by Better Courts Now.

The drive for a judiciary that seems beholden to a religious agenda troubles some Californians.

“Any organization that wants judges to subscribe to a certain political party or certain value system or certain way of ruling to me threatens the independence of the judiciary,” San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis told the AP. “Judges should be evaluated based on their qualifications and their duty to follow the law.”

Dumanis and other Californians have good cause to be concerned. Judges and other public officials should never elevate a narrow interpretation of God’s law above the Constitution or federal and state laws.

And while groups such as Better Courts Now may claim to speak for God – one of its activists asserted that “God has called upon us” to act – they really are just speaking for themselves. After all, I’m sure there are people in California who feel certain God is pulling them in a different direction from Better Courts Now.

Not everyone in California agrees on what constitutes “God’s law.” Better Courts Now feels confident that God opposes same-sex marriage. There are plenty of people in California who argue that God approves of such unions. (Still others argue there is no God to care.)

Judges are often called upon to make difficult decisions. Upholding the values of the federal and state constitutions is not always popular. That’s why an independent judiciary is a vital safeguard in any republic. It’s also why judges must be free from the passing whims and prejudices of majority rule.

Any move to choose judges based on their adherence to religion upsets that fundamental principle.