Religion At The Polls: Religious Right-Backed Candidates Fail At The Ballot Box

Candidates who bashed church-state separation performed poorly last night.

Yesterday was primary election day in a number of states. Several candidates who ran on platforms bashing church-state separation fared poorly.

Here are some results that might be of interest:

In South Dakota, state Sen. Gordon Howie openly encouraged pastors to endorse him from the pulpit. One or two ministers did so, insisting that churches have the right to intervene in politics, despite a federal law that bars electioneering by non-profit groups. Most pastors in the state – including Howie’s own -- were wary of the gambit.

Howie, who ran as a “tea party” Republican, didn’t even come close to winning. In a field of four candidates, he took third place with 12 percent of the vote. Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard topped the field with 51 percent.

In South Carolina, two GOP gubernatorial hopefuls who highlighted their support for a special “Christian” license plate were rejected by the voters. Attorney General Henry McMaster and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer took third and fourth place respectively.

McMaster and Bauer celebrated the sectarian tag – it featured the words “I Believe,” a cross and stained-glass window -- and went on the warpath after Americans United won a federal court ruling striking it down in November of 2009.

After the ruling, Bauer howled that it “clearly discriminates against persons of faith” and demanded that the state appeal because “it is time that people stand up for their beliefs. Enough is enough.” (The state later decided not to appeal.) The two clearly hoped to exploit the issue to rally conservative Christian voters, but the gambit failed miserably.

McMaster and Bauer were bested by candidate Nikki Haley, who captured 49 percent in the primary and was endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But state law requires a win of at least 50 percent, so Haley will face U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett in a runoff election June 22.

In California, an effort by fundamentalist Christian pastors to unseat four state judges was a total dud. The effort, called Better Courts Now, targeted judges because of their alleged support of same-sex marriage and reproductive rights.

The campaign failed to motivate voters. All four judges easily won reelection. Its backers had vowed to take their campaign to the state legislature next. Perhaps now they will just go away.

Finally, there was one vote last night that was highly troubling. The Enfield, Conn., School Board voted 5-4 to reverse an earlier vote and appeal a federal court ruling barring the school from holding graduation in an evangelical mega-church.

The matter now moves to the U.S. 2nd court of Appeals.

Representing local parents and students, Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Enfield board after it refused to stop using First Cathedral in Bloomfield, a facility that is festooned with Christian iconography, for graduation.

Other public schools in the area have stopped using First Cathedral and have moved to secular venues. But some people, it seems, never learn.