- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

The Democratic National Committee’s director for religious outreach resigned after 13 days on the job because of “negative publicity” about her backing of a U.S. Supreme Court case seeking to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson is the second Democratic official to resign under pressure from the New York-based Catholic League, which Monday began issuing press releases criticizing her.

The league’s chief complaint was Mrs. Peterson’s decision in February to be one of 32 Catholic and Protestant clergy signatories on an amicus brief siding with atheist Michael Newdow, the California plaintiff seeking to excise the two words. The Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit in June on a technicality.

On Wednesday, The Washington Times and CNN reported Mrs. Peterson’s connection with the amicus brief. She resigned that day.

“I feel it is no longer possible for me to do my job effectively,” Mrs. Peterson said in a statement released yesterday by the DNC.

“I do not want my support of this case to serve as a distraction or ammunition for Republicans and their allies,” she said. “I continue to believe, as do leading faith leaders across this country, that John Kerry should be the next president of the United States and that John Kerry’s values of opportunity, family and responsibility are America’s values.”

She refused further comment on her reasons for leaving or whether she plans to return to her former position as executive director for the Clergy Network for National Leadership Change, a liberal group trying to oust President Bush.

“We will be hiring someone new and we will continue to reach out to people of faith by discussing John Kerry’s values and faith,” DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera said.

Mrs. Peterson’s hiring was announced July 23 by DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe as a Democratic effort to wrest religious voters away from President Bush.

With three months to go, the campaign is trailing badly among religious voters, and plans for religious links to the DNC and Kerry Web sites are running months late.

The Kerry campaign’s hiring of Mara Vanderslice as a religious adviser also collapsed in June after the Catholic League cited her past association with radical political groups. The campaign has since silenced Miss Vanderslice.

Political observers expressed consternation at how a small Catholic organization with 12 staff members and a $3 million budget could effectively sidetrack the religious outreach efforts of the Democratic presidential nominee.

“It’s just outrageous and it’s an indication of how frightened religious conservatives are to have someone stepping on their turf,” said Amy Sullivan, an editor for the Washington Monthly.

“They have researchers digging up anything they possibly can on people of religion in the Democratic Party. They can’t go after Kerry, so they are going after people associated with him,” Miss Sullivan said.

“I don’t think the Democrats or the Kerry campaign quite know what to do with religion,” said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who does extensive polling on religion and politics. “There is a certain fear on the part of the Democrats that if they talk too much about religion, they will alienate a portion of their base.

“In the Kerry campaign, one day they talk about faith and the other day they don’t, so you never know what they are going to say. It’s not too late for them to change but they need to figure out what to say,” Mr. Green said.

The Democratic strategy, Mr. Cabrera said, is “to reach out to people of faith and engage them in the debate as to what it means when politicians use the word ‘values.’”

“Values is more than simply partisan sniping. It comes down to the policy choices you make,” Mr. Cabrera said. “That is, taxes for the wealthy versus expanding access to health care.”

But the Catholic League said yesterday that both the Kerry campaign and the DNC are “imploding on religion.”

“Too many of the elites running the show are devout secularists who put a premium on freedom from religion,” league President William Donohue said. “Their idea of religious liberty is banning Nativity scenes on public property. … Kerry and the DNC now have two strikes against them in their religious outreach efforts.

“Whether they strike out is up to them. We’re certainly not dropping out of the game, and we’re certainly monitoring Bush and the RNC on this subject just as closely.”

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