WASHINGTON (ABP) — The Democratic Party's first-ever liaison to religious leaders has resigned only two weeks after she started, under fire from a conservative Catholic group for her opposition to the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Brenda Peterson, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, resigned abruptly Aug. 4 as the Democratic National Committee's senior advisor for religious outreach. Her hiring was announced July 23.
Peterson resigned the same day that stories in the conservative Washington Times and the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Press publicized charges that Peterson was anti-religious. The charges were first leveled Aug. 2 by William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. The group has frequently made headlines for criticizing politicians and groups it considers anti-Catholic.
In a three-day series of press releases attacking Peterson, Donohue noted she signed a friend-of-the-court brief along with other clergy members supporting Michael Newdow's case to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court rejected Newdow's argument that he, as an atheist, had a right to prevent his daughter from being exposed to the words in her California public school. The court turned Newdow away on technical grounds, and did not decide on his argument that the Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion prevented the pledge from being recited in public-school classrooms.
In his Aug. 2 release, Donohue, the Catholic leader, said the brief that Peterson signed “shows infinitely more concern for the sensibilities of atheists like Newdow than it does for the 90 percent of Americans who believe in God.” He also wondered if the leaders of the DNC were “totally out of their minds” for hiring Peterson to conduct outreach to religious voters. “Would they hire a gay basher to reach out to homosexuals?” he asked.
Peterson had previously been the director of the Clergy Leadership Network. The group was formed late last year to rally progressive religious leaders to challenge the Religious Right and oppose many of President Bush's policies.
When asked by an Associated Baptist Press reporter for comment, DNC Communications Director Jano Cabrera deferred to a statement Peterson released Aug. 4 on her resignation. He said she was not forced to resign. He did say the organization was “looking currently” for a replacement for Peterson.
In the statement, Peterson said she was resigning “because it is no longer possible for me to do my job effectively” after the controversy raised by the Catholic League. Peterson did not return an ABP reporter's phone call seeking comment.
The controversy comes just days after Peterson organized a highly publicized “People of Faith Luncheon” at the Democratic National Convention in Boston and amidst a campaign by some Democrats to get their party's leaders to talk more openly about faith and its role in forming their positions on public policy.
The Catholic League had previously criticized Mara Vanderslice, the religious-outreach liaison for Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry's campaign. Calling her “a radical leftist who associates with anti-Catholics,” the group specifically faulted Vanderslice for a speech she made after her college years to the AIDS activist group ACT-Up. The Catholic league described them as “notoriously anti-Catholic” for their criticism of some Catholic bishops for what ACT-Up considered anti-gay statements and policies.
The Catholic League and at least three media outlets said Vanderslice was marginalized and banned from talking to reporters as a result of the Catholic group's charges. A Kerry campaign staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that was “inaccurate” and that directing media requests away from outreach staffers and toward communications staffers was standard for any presidential campaign. “It's not about muzzling. It's about letting Mara focus on the outreach she's supposed to do,” the staffer said.
The staffer also termed the Catholic League's charges against Vanderslice “unfortunate…. It's clear that this is being driven by political pundits of this campaign. Mara is doing a good job, and she's a person of faith — and there's not a lot else to say.”
But the SBC's Baptist Press, in an Aug. 4 release, said the Peterson case showed that the party “has stumbled again in its attempt to reach religious adherents in an election year.”
Peterson's former boss at the Clergy Leadership Network, Al Pennybacker, criticized Peterson's attackers. “I really don't have much patience for these people. I think they are narrow-minded and mean-spirited in ways that are unbecoming of a religious community,” he said. “This is a very small, splinter, unofficial Catholic group, and they're to the right of Right. It fits in the pattern of attack that a number of extreme-right religious groups have pursued.”
Pennybacker noted the friend-of-the-court brief Peterson was criticized for signing had argued that the government's use of rote religious phrases such as “under God” to solemnize public occasions amounts to trifling with religion. “The point in the amicus brief is that you've got to take religion seriously,” he said.
But Catholic League spokesman Louis Giovino discounted that argument. “It's just a stance, an argument,” he told ABP. “If you're taking out 'under God,' no matter what all the other stuff means, most people are going to take it to mean that you [want to] censor God.”