Winter 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2005

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Our New Religious Politics

Religion Gap Swings New Ways

A Certain Presidency

Schiavo Interminable

Iraq's Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray

Windsor Knot

Protestants in Decline

The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't

Channeling Bleep

Cut-Rate Religion Coverage



Schiavo Interminable  
by David W. Machacek

Terri Schiavo is still alive, and so, briefly, was Randall Terry’s career. News coverage of the run-up to the date set by a Florida judge for removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube—October 15, 2003—gave every indication that this would be the end for the 40-year-old woman whom doctors had pronounced in a “permanent vegetative state” back in 1990. The most that Pat Anderson, the lawyer for her parents, could muster on October 10 was, “As long as she is alive, there’s hope.”

Then, on October 13, Randall Terry showed up with 10 demonstrators on the lawn outside Woodside Hospice, where Schiavo was being cared for. A press release carried that day by U.S. Newswire announced that the founder of Operation Rescue had been “invited” by Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, to “help save her life.” Later that night, the Fox News Network’s Sean Hannity presided over his return to the national spotlight: “Randall, it’s been a long time. Welcome back, sir.”

For five years Terry had languished in media darkness, tarnished by a widely publicized divorce and too extreme in his views for even his erstwhile allies in the anti-abortion movement. In August, the AP’s Russ Bynum reported from Savannah, Ga., that he was looking to make a “comeback” as an opponent of same-sex marriage. But latching on to the Schiavo case worked a lot better.

The Schindlers, Roman Catholics, had received only equivocal support from their church. In August, the local bishop, Robert Lynch of the diocese of St. Petersburg, wrote a letter cautioning against labeling judges who ruled against keeping Terri on life support “murderers.” The Florida bishops’ conference later issued a statement saying only that it would be “wrong” to remove the feeding tube unless Terri were near death.

But where the Catholic hierarchy hesitated, the evangelical Protestant warrior rushed in. Into the long-running right-to-die story Terry injected motives of sex, greed, and politics. And the journalists ate it up.

The October 13 press release insinuated that Terri’s husband Michael was trying to starve his disabled wife to death in order to obtain a million-dollar medical malpractice settlement. Along with the assertion that Terri “has clearly communicated that she does not want to be starved to death,” the release featured a deliciously supplicant quote from the Schindlers that was dutifully included in most press reports over the next several days: “We will sign any agreement you want, giving all monies related to Terri’s collapse and any insurance money that may be forthcoming. You take the money. We just want our daughter.”

On Hannity & Colmes, Terry portrayed Michael Schiavo as a scam artist who had “gone on to so many women between his wife and his status now.” Then came the clincher: a direct appeal to Florida Governor Jeb Bush. “All of us need to do everything in our power to rescue Terri from this cruel death,” the press release concluded. “That duty begins with Gov. Bush.”

Although Bush had earlier written the judge to oppose removal of the feeding tube, the day it was removed Stephen Thompson and Rod Challenger reported in the Tampa Tribune that he had no plans to intercede. “The governor does not have the authority to overrule a court’s ruling, said Bush spokesman Jacob DiPietre. “Battles End With Quiet Removal of Feeding Tube” ran the headline in the St. Petersburg Times October 16.

No journalist had an inkling of what was about to happen.

On October 20, the Florida House of Representatives voted to give the governor of the state the authority to order that the feeding tube be replaced. The next day the bill sailed through the state senate and in a matter of minutes Gov. Bush signed it into law and ordered that Terri Schiavo be rehydrated and fed. Lawyers on both sides of the case said they were dumbfounded at the turn of events.

As it turned out, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd saw the Schiavo case as an opportunity to steal a march on state senator Dan Webster, both of whom were then vying to be the GOP nominee for a U.S. Senate seat. After Byrd got the House to vote the bill through and put out the word that he would be appearing on Hannity & Colmes to discuss it, Webster felt compelled to act swiftly. As Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon) told Adam C. Smith in the Oct. 22 St. Petersburg Times, “A lot of people felt pretty rotten about having to vote for a piece of legislation or be blamed by the politically expedient on the other end of the hall for killing Terri Schiavo.”

Most Florida newspapers saw “Terri’s Law” the same way.

It was the “repugnant” result of “immoral politics” and a “play for right-to-life votes in the Republican primary,” editorialized the St. Petersburg Times October 22. “The governor and legislature have provoked a constitutional crisis; substituted a hasty legislative order for years of court rulings; defied sound medical judgment; and made a mockery of Florida’s right-to-privacy and death-with-dignity laws,” complained the Miami Herald October 24. “They did so for no good reason other than to curry political favor with religious conservative voters.”

On October 26 Tampa Tribune columnist Daniel Ruth wrote that “when it comes to rolling over like an errant puppy out of fear of alienating powerful Christian conservative voters, legislators prodded by Bush and Byrd couldn’t get on their backs fast enough to turn the Florida Constitution into so much ticker tape for Randall Terry.”

Like sentiments echoed across the country. Here’s a sampling.

The Los Angeles Times, October 23: “Such issues shouldn’t be left to legislators to pounce on for a preelection parade.” The Louisville Courier-Journal, October 24: “The issue was seized upon by demagogic politicians and the leaders of conservative fringe groups, who found it useful to their own causes….The true villains have been the self-serving grandstanders who interfered to turn private agony into political theater.” The Boston Globe, October 25: “Deathbed demagoguery.”

Froma Harrop, Providence Journal-Bulletin, October 26: “Bush and the Florida legislature have proved that no end-of-life decision is so sacred that it can’t be put into political play.” The Christian Science Monitor, October 29: “It’s hard not to suspect that their action is as much about ‘pro-life’ politics and the 2004 election as about Terri Schiavo’s well-being.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 27: The law “pandered to the strong pro-life lobby in Florida, which is why the lawmakers made like fools to rush in where angels fear to tread.”

As soon became clear, however, the religious right was hardly the passive object of political pandering. On November 8, the Lancaster (Pa.) New Era published a profile by David O’Connor of Phil Sheldon, a Lancaster inhabitant who happens to be the son of Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, one of the more prominent religious right organizations. The younger Sheldon, O’Connor reported, “stays below the public’s radar screen as he works behind the scenes on pro-life and conservative causes.”

Sheldon told O’Connor that seeing a video of Terri Schiavo had reminded him of his disabled son Joshua, who had died of cerebral palsy in 1997. The video inspired him to put in a call to Randall Terry, who in turn contacted the Schindlers.

Picking up on the Sheldon connection in the Philadelphia Inquirer the next day, reporter Chris Gray laid out a “textbook case of activism.” After enlisting Terry in the cause, Sheldon—aided and abetted by conservative talk radio—“rallied subscribers to his Web site,, to bombard Florida Gov. Jeb Bush with outraged e-mail messages.” More than 100,000 people sent e-mails in support of Terri’s law, shutting down the Florida’s legislature’s Internet server. “It’s all over when that happens,” said Sheldon.

Terry himself saw it a little differently. “The e-mail avalanche was the vehicle,” he told Gray, “but it was the media coverage that gave it fuel.”

As far as the journalists were concerned, the key was Terry’s return to action. The new legislation, wrote Barbara Miner in the December 22, 2003 issue of In These Times, “might better be named ‘Terry’s Law.’”

In May 2004, a trial judge ruled, to virtually no one’s surprise, that Terri’s law violated Terri Schiavo’s privacy rights as well as the constitutional separation of powers. In late September, the Florida Supreme Court upheld that decision.

But as it turned out, even that wasn’t the end of the Schiavo story. Denied a rehearing of the case by the Florida Supreme Court on October 22, Governor Bush announced his intention to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the Schindlers successfully petitioned Judge Greer to extend indefinitely a stay he’d ordered in a ruling that denied their request for a new trial, to determine whether Terri might have changed her mind about being kept alive in response to remarks by Pope John Paul II in March concerning artificial life support.

As 2004 drew to a close, it seemed that the legal battles over Terri Schiavo’s life and death could go on indefinitely. On October 30, the Tampa Tribune’s David Sommer quoted Michael Schiavo’s lawyer, George Felos, as saying that it “would appear that pursuing any remedy through the judicial system is simply a waste of time.”

Michael was stuck, Felos told William R. Levesque of St. Petersburg Times November 2, “in a shell game in which he continually wins but the case is never concluded.” As a result, he was considering not participating in further appellate proceedings, meaning that there was a real possibility that Terri would remain on life support indefinitely.

Editorialists and opinion writers from across the political spectrum generally concurred that Terri’s Law was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of judicial and legislative powers. Even so conservative a syndicated columnist as Cal Thomas conceded on October 27 that “[h]ard cases can make bad law.”

But emboldened by their success, key figures on the religious right began to talk about using the Schiavo case as a model for “chipping away at court rulings allowing abortion and banning organized prayer in schools and posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, among other issues,” as Abby Goodnough put it in the October 24, 2003 New York Times.

It could be argued that, by his actions, Randall Terry had created a new technique for subverting court rulings. Nonetheless, the spotlight on his personal career began to fade soon after the commotion of October 2003.

The following January, the AP’s Scott Reeves was alone in reporting that Terry planned to erect a statue depicting “Christ holding an aborted child with the mother at his feet seeking forgiveness” at a church in Washington, D.C. to counter an abortion rights demonstration planned for last spring. If that happened, the media passed on covering it.

In June, Terry showed up with a small group of protesters at the U.S. Catholic Bishops meeting in Denver to demand that politicians who support abortion rights be denied communion. Later in the summer, he drew a small amount of notice outside both the Democratic Convention in Boston and Republican Convention in New York.

In New York, his protest was directed against the GOP for permitting prime time appearances by pro-choice governors George Pataki and Arnold Schwartzenegger—a move not calculated to win favor with a Bush campaign eager to put its “big tent” on display. After the election, with the pro-life crusade definitively in the suites rather than the streets, Terry seemed likely to remain on the margins.



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