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Democratic adviser backed atheist in suit

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

The Democratic National Committee's new adviser for religious outreach was one of 32 signatories on a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief backing an atheist who sought to remove the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

In February, the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson was one of almost three dozen Christian and Jewish clergy who -- along with the Unitarian Universalist Association -- asked the Supreme Court to support Michael Newdow, the California plaintiff trying to change the Pledge's wording.

The Supreme Court restored the words "under God" to the Pledge in June, ruling that Mr. Newdow had no standing or legal right to bring the case.

Mrs. Peterson was already well-known in Washington, where she was executive director for the Clergy Network for National Leadership Change, a group trying to oust President Bush and undermine religious conservatives.

She is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an Indianapolis-based Protestant denomination.

Her new appointment, announced July 23 by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe as part of a Democratic effort to wrest America's religious voters away from Mr. Bush, has delighted religious liberals.

The Rev. Albert M. Pennybacker, a Disciples of Christ minister and chief executive officer for the Clergy Network, said Mrs. Peterson is "smart, a quick study, energetic and an attractive public presence."

"She's articulate with progressive religious views," he said.

But the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights sees her in a different light.

"This is the person the Democrats want to dispatch to meet with the heads of religious organizations?" said the conservative group's president, William Donohue. "Are they out of their minds? Would they hire a gay basher to reach out to homosexuals?"

Two months ago, the league successfully silenced Sen. John Kerry's religious adviser, Mara Vanderslice, by bringing up her past connections with radical political groups.

The selections of Miss Vanderslice and Mrs. Peterson "suggest that either no one bothers to vet candidates for religious outreach or the elites making the choices are anti-religious," said Mr. Donohue, who is registered as an independent.

"If the former is true, then this shows that the Democrats place no priority on appealing to people of faith. If the latter is true, then Kerry needs to bring in a big broom and clean house."

Mr. Pennybacker said, "It'd be a stretch to say Brenda is a compensation for Mara. Brenda's job is really based in the ongoing life of the Democratic Party. Mara's job was tied with the Kerry campaign."

Mrs. Peterson rallied religious liberals since she took the Clergy Network post in November. Her husband, John Peterson, is communications director for the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal ecumenical group.

"Religion has been manipulated by this administration to a new and disgusting level," she told Agence France-Presse after she was hired by the network. "We are a group of clergy that has come together to say things have gone so bad with this administration that we can no longer be silent."

Because her office was across South Capitol Street from the Democratic National Committee, she quickly got the attention of Democrats who were looking for someone with some religious savvy.

In a July 29 posting on www.democrats.org, she said her new job would entail strategies "about getting out the vote and letting people know John Kerry's positions on ... moral issues."

Of her experience with working with church liberals, "it's like herding cats," she said in May in an interview with the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo.

"Because we are such a diverse group of people from so many different faith organizations, it has been harder to get people to rally around a very focused cause."

Mrs. Peterson refused requests from The Washington Times for an interview.

A denominational spokesman said she received a master's of divinity degree from Lexington (Ky.) Theological Seminary in 1999 and was ordained in May of that year.

Mr. Pennybacker says she was pastor of Newtown Christian Church in Georgetown, Ky., until the death of one of her sons, Mark Bartella, who was killed in a recreational vehicle accident in 2002. The other son, Sims Bartella, is stationed with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan.

The family, he said, saw their move to Washington last fall as a welcome reprieve from sad memories.

Mrs. Peterson told the PBS show "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" last week that her hiring "is a strong statement that the Democrats and John Kerry and John Edwards want to reach out to religious voters, want to hear what they have to say.

"We plan to go all over the nation," she said. "We plan to have a religious Web page on the DNC site and to let people of faith be heard. To let them know that their voice can say, 'We think the federal budget is a moral document. We think that there are issues in this campaign that have a theological underpinning.' "