A rebuilding year for Christian conservatives

One cold morning last week, 10 religious conservative groups gathered at the front steps of the state Capitol to list what they wanted from the 236 lawmakers inside.

Restrictions on fertility clinics. Defeat of a bill to permit Sunday sales of beer and wine in grocery stores. Say no to casinos. Provide help to young girls forced into prostitution.

No organization’s agenda was the same, and attendance was far from complete. The Georgia Family Council was missing. So was the Catholic Archdiocese.

Sadie Fields, head of the Georgia Christian Alliance, had chosen to do her lobbying a day earlier, testifying in favor of school vouchers and against academics who explore topics such as oral sex and male prostitution.

But two close friends of Fields, activists Kay Godwin and Pat Tippett from south Georgia, were at the morning event. They’re forming yet another group: Georgia Conservatives in Action.

Five years past the height of their power, when they persuaded two-thirds of the state Legislature to endorse a constitutional ban on gay marriage, conservative Christian groups find themselves splintered and their clout much diminished.

Certainly, they still matter. Once Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss decided to vote against the stimulus package in Washington, the senators arranged Saturday morning calls to Fields for her approval.

But internal dissent, a confrontation last year with state lawmakers, and Barack Obama’s election — not to mention a spiraling economy that shifts attention away from social issues — all have taken their toll.

Last year, Georgia Right to Life pushed hard for H.R. 536, a proposed constitutional amendment to declare fertilized eggs to be human beings. The archdiocese declined to support it. Other groups declared themselves neutral. Hardball tactics offended lawmakers. The measure died.

“Last year was a huge learning curve for us. Maybe we overplayed our hand with the human life amendment,” said Tim Echols, one of those who organized last week’s gathering. “We got such a push-back from the General Assembly. We were all marginalized as a result.”

But Echols said the results of the 2008 presidential race, which shattered hopes of a U.S. Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade, has also caused disarray.

“The Obama election was sobering for us, because it’s almost like the death of a vision. Losing this election meant losing that thing at the very top of our wish list,” said Echols, who sits on the board of the Georgia Christian Coalition. “Now what do we want? That means everybody comes back to the table. Now, we’ve got to hash it out.”

Though he recognizes that not all conservative Christian groups oppose it, Echols puts great stock in the defeat of S.B. 16 as a way to restore the movement’s stature in the Capitol. The bill would permit Sunday sales of beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores.

“We’re itching for a win,” he said.

Echols is the founder of TeenPact, an organization that introduces kids — often home-schooled — to the workings of government. A day earlier, he’d led 40 teenagers inside to pack a Senate committee meeting on the Sunday sales bill.

But reassessments are never one-sided. And there are those who question the very nature of the working relationship that many conservative Christians seek to rebuild with politicians.

Jenny Hodges is a 33-year-old mother of six from Acworth, the type of true believer who makes appointments with abortion clinics to check their compliance with regulations — sonograms and such — imposed by Republican lawmakers at the behest of conservative Christian groups.

The regulations are mostly window-dressing, Hodges has decided.

“I came to the conclusion that Republicans in Georgia were not really pro-life,” she said. “That they were using [the issue] to get votes, and that the pro-life groups are letting them get away with it by being satisfied with incremental legislation that does not actually impact abortion numbers, but is effective for fund-raising.”

Hodges now wears her own lobbying badge. And she has founded her own group, called Pro-Life Unity.

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