November 2000 Church & State | Featured

When Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Sept. 14 to deliver an invocation, it was an historic first. Never before had a Hindu priest been invited to offer a prayer to begin the day in Congress.

Samuldrala, who leads the Shiva Vishnu Temple in Parma, Ohio, used the opportunity to offer a short, simple prayer. He spoke of an "omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient" God, and then prayed that everyone in the House chamber that morning be happy and free from disease. He concluded, "peace be unto all."

The prayer itself drew the attention of virtually no one. No one, that is, except the Family Research Council (FRC).

In an email newsletter to its supporters, the FRC, the most prominent Religious Right lobbying group in Washington, D.C., condemned Samuldrala's prayer, disparaged religious pluralism and said only Christianity de­serves government support.

"[W]hile it is true that the United States of America was founded on the sacred principle of religious freedom for all, that liberty was never intended to exalt other religions to the level that Christianity holds in our country's heritage," the FRC observed in the Sept. 21 edition of CultureFacts, a publication usually devoted to condemning homosexuals.

"Our Founders expected that Christianity and no other religion would receive support from the government as long as that support did not violate peoples' consciences and their right to worship," the group added. "They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference."

As if equating Hinduism with paganism wasn't enough, the Religious Right group went on to take a flippant tone towards Samuldrala himself.

"As for our Hindu priest friend, the United States is a nation that has historically honored the One True God," the newsletter said. "Woe be to us on that day when we relegate Him to being merely one among countless other deities in the pantheon of theologies." The FRC went on to describe "religious pluralism" as leading to "moral relativism and ethical chaos," while approving of tolerance that "embraces biblical truth while allowing freedom of conscience."

What began, however, as an intolerant slap by a Christian group against a religious minority, quickly became a major embarrassment for the FRC.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the nation's leading opponent of the Religious Right, monitors CultureFacts and other FRC publications. When the FRC's intolerant statement was released, AU promptly brought the newsletter to the attention of the national media.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said the FRC's criticism spoke volumes about the Religious Right's disregard for the rights of non-Christian religious minorities.

"The FRC's attack reeks of religious bigotry," Lynn said. "Despite the FRC's years of claiming support for religious liberty, the truth has come out. This is an outrageous act of prejudice and it should be condemned by decent people everywhere.

"It is truly rare, even within the Religious Right, to see a group display simultaneously such a poor understanding of history and a remarkable lack of respect for religious diversity," Lynn continued. "Usually, profound ignorance like this is commonly found in the 18th, not the 21st, century. Contrary to the FRC's views, there are no second-class religions in America. Hindus, Muslims, Jews and other non-Christian faiths are equal in the eyes of the law."

Lynn said he personally believes the House should discontinue the practice of opening its session with prayer. But if the practice is going to continue, he added, it must be open to all American religious and philosophical traditions.

AU's Lynn was not alone in his displeasure with the FRC. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the congressional sponsor who invited Samuldrala to deliver the invocation, also criticized the FRC.

"I'm disappointed the Family Research Council doesn't understand what this country is all about," Brown said. "This country was founded on freedom of religion and religious diversity." He also described the FRC's comments as "bigotry, plain and simple."

The FRC had little choice but to begin backpedaling. The CultureFacts newsletter with the offending language was quickly removed from the group's website. Kristin Hansen, an FRC spokesperson, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the piece had not been approved by FRC officials and was published accidentally.

Moreover, the FRC issued a statement intended to "clarify" its position on religious liberty.

"We affirm the truth of Christianity, but it is not our position that America's Constitution forbids representatives of religions other than Christianity from praying before Congress," FRC Executive Vice President Chuck Donovan said. "We recognize that decisions on this matter are the prerogative of each house of Congress." When pressed by a reporter about the omission of the word "apology" in the clarification, Donovan conceded that Samuldrala "deserved an apology."

Said AU's Lynn, "Clearly this was an embarrassment for the FRC. Unfortunately for the group, it comes in a long line of missteps."

Just five years ago, it appeared the Family Research Council was prepared to become a dominant force within the Religious Right's political movement. After its founding in 1981, the organization existed in near obscurity for several years. Things began to turn around for the group after being taken over by Gary Bauer in 1988, who had been working as a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

Bauer sought a higher national profile and was able to do so when he successfully merged the FRC with Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, a large fundamentalist ministry located in Colorado Springs.

Dobson, a child psychologist whose radio broadcasts reach an estimated five million people daily in the United States, made the FRC the Washington arm of his operation. In October of 1992, however, the two organizations dissolved their merger. As Dobson describes it, the FRC was "spun off as an independent ministry."

Dobson was reportedly concerned that the FRC's overtly political work as a lobbying group could jeopardize FOF's tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) organization. Despite the split, however, Dobson remains heavily involved in FRC's work and sits on the organization's board of directors. Dobson himself once said that FOF and FRC are "legally separate, but spiritually one."

Under Bauer's leadership and with Dobson's assistance, the FRC saw explosive growth. In 1990, the organization had 20 employees. By 2000, that number had quintupled to over 100 employees and the group had moved into a brand-new multi-story office on the edge of Washington's Chinatown. (The building was erected with money from Dick DeVos, the conservative Michi­gan-based Amway millionaire, his wife Betsy DeVos, former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, and Betsy's mother, Elsa Prince.)

The FRC entered a transition period in January 1999, when Bauer announced he would take a "leave of absence" to seek the Republican nomination for the presidency. Bauer fared poorly in the early primaries. Shortly after finishing last in the New Hampshire primary, attracting only about three-quarters of 1 percent of the vote, he withdrew from the race.

Officials at the FRC made it clear that they did not want Bauer to return as the group's president. In the interim period, FRC's primary spokesperson was right-wing radio talk show host Janet Parshall, while Donovan ran the organization internally.

Without institutional leadership for nearly two full years, the group began to flounder both publicly and financially. After remarkable expansion during the first half of the 1990s, recent years have seen FRC budgets level off and even begin to decline.

In filings with the Internal Revenue Service, for example, the FRC's contributions totaled just over $14 million for fiscal year 1998. The group's contributions for 1999 then fell somewhat, to $13.2 million.

Things don't appear to be getting any better for the current fiscal year, either. This became apparent when Dobson sent a letter to FRC members in June begging for money to help keep the group afloat.

"FRC is currently $3.2 million below budget," Dobson wrote. He added, "[I]f this shortfall isn't eased, the organization will have no choice but to pare back its public policy efforts."

After Dobson's letter, observers began to seriously question whether the FRC would be able to maintain its position as a leading Religious Right group, or for that matter, whether it could exist at all.

Enter Ken Connor.

After a lengthy search process, the FRC selected Connor, a 53-year-old Florida-based trial attorney who has specialized in medical and nursing home malpractice, to succeed Bauer as the president of the organization.

Connor, best known as the former president of the Florida chapter of Right To Life, ran unsuccessfully in the 1994 Republican gu­bernatorial primaries in Florida. Despite a smooth demeanor and an eloquent speaking style, Connor's positions reflect a hard line on most social issues. He supports public funding of private religious school vouch­ers and the teaching of creationism in public school science classes. (He has already announced plans to fly to Michigan to crusade for a voucher referendum on the ballot there.)

Said AU's Lynn, "The Family Research Council wraps its political rhetoric around a narrow interpretation of the Bible. Connor appears to be a new conductor who will keep the FRC's train on the same intolerant track."