WASHINGTON — Religious liberty issues will likely take center stage at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), commencing Thursday to rally thousands of activists around top conservative causes in a midterm election year.
Along with the presidential straw polls, book signings and attempts to grab a "selfie" with expected guests such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or New York real estate mogul Donald Trump, questions of freedom of conscience about birth control, same-sex marriage and other hot-button issues will be present, observers predict.
And to Alberto Cardenas, American Conservative Union chairman, that's just fine. The ACU, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has sponsored the CPAC event near the nation's Capitol since 1973.
"As Americans begin to see how Obamacare restricts citizens' rights and discourages a culture of life and liberty for all, we wanted to make sure to highlight at this year's CPAC the cases of Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor, both of whom have been told that their religious values don't matter as far as this administration is concerned," Cardenas said in a statement.
Pending U.S. Supreme Court cases involving the government's contraception mandate and last week's veto of an Arizona religious freedom bill that gay marriage advocates vehemently opposed have set the stage for this emphasis.
"A nation is not totally free unless it has the right of conscience and religious liberty," said Timothy Goeglein, vice president of External Relations for Focus on the Family. "It is right and proper that (these issues) should be a very significant part of the discussion" at a political event.
Goeglein said religious liberty questions fall under the "traditional values" wing of the "large house" of American conservatism.
HHS mandate cases
On Saturday, Goeglein is to introduce a speech by Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon whose 2013 National Prayer Breakfast remarks, in which he chided many Obama administration policies, launched him into the political spotlight. Carson, who noted he is not running for president, said that he wants his speech to sound an alarm.
"My main purpose is to wake people up to what's going on," said Carson, whose new book, "One Nation," will be released in May. "Our country, our freedoms, that we want to pass on are under attack, and we don't even know it."
Carson said he's worried about the deterioration of the traditional American family and "attacks on God and our Judeo-Christian values."
A prime example of the conflict is the juxtaposition of religious liberty and the demands of the 2009 Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare." Goeglein referred to two pending Supreme Court cases — Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. vs. Sebelius and Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. vs. Sebelius — both of which center on whether the government can mandate employers to provide birth control methods that violate their conscience. He said these questions will motivate voters this fall.
"I think that, actually, this set of issues will be very significant," Goeglein said. "In the history of our country, there has never been a pair of Supreme Court cases that has affirmed the centrality of the (religious liberty) debate that's going on in our country, none more so than the two HHS mandate cases."
Longtime conservative activist Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, echoed Goeglein's sentiments, but on a different issue: proposals to restrict the political activity of "social welfare" organizations under the federal tax code as proposed recently by the Internal Revenue Service.
Critics, including Reed, said the rules would not allow groups to register voters, draft and distribute voter's guides to various candidates, or even post comments the candidates have said in a critical manner.
Reed said of the 140,000 comments the IRS received about its proposed rules for groups organized under Section 501(c)4 of the tax code, 61,000 came from his coalition's members and supporters, who he said were concerned about losing their freedom of conscience.
"We're not going to be intimidated, we're not going to be silenced. I think this outpouring of public comment indicates how people are willing to go to protect their rights," he said. Reed predicted a "strong backlash at the polls" over these issues.
Asked how serious the threat to Americans' religious liberty is, Carson said that while "it's not to the level of Syria or Egypt, in any sense of the imagination," he has noticed "just the gradual elimination of reference to God, reference to faith. The people who use the (American Civil Liberties Union) and other mechanisms to try to intimidate religious people, (saying) 'You can't put that up, because it offends me.' I've experienced that myself."
Carson said people of faith tend to "back down too easily. Just because someone is offended or complains doesn't mean you have to back down. It means you have to engage in a discussion … that's the way to solve problems."
While many religious liberty advocates will likely applaud the emphasis these issues receive at the CPAC event, it remains to be seen how much of an impact such agitation will have at the ballot box, said Matthew J. Burbank, an associate professor at the University of Utah's political science department who studies elections.
"I suspect the motivation for bringing up this issue, as we've seen in several cases recently, tends to be beneficial in terms of energizing a specific base of the GOP, specifically Christian conservatives," Burbank said. "I wouldn't think it likely to be an issue that brings a lot of new people in. People that feel strongly on this issue are fairly likely to be motivated. It's unlikely that this issue by itself would be enough to motivate people (to turn out)."