Panel: Even in liberal Bay Area, threat of religious right is real

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In some parts of the Bay Area, the religious right can seem a bit like the boogeyman: elusive, neither entirely real nor entirely phantom and yet an ever-present menace.

But even here, in what is considered one of the most tolerant parts of the country, the religious right is hardly a mythical beast that creeps out in the middle of the night, panelists speaking on the subject warned last week.

Instead, they explained, the religious right is an increasingly well-organized, well-funded alliance that has come to wield significant sway over the Republican party and the national agenda. Nevertheless, panelists' assurances that the religious right is active in parts of the Bay Area seemed to surprise some in the audience.

"Maybe I'm just naive because I live in Berkeley, but who are these people?" one audience member asked the five panelists.

The panel was sponsored by the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

Panelist Molleen Matsumura acknowledged that it is easy for Bay Area residents to become immune to the power of the religious right.

"If I weren't reading newspaper clippings from around the country, I might wonder who these people were, too," she said.

But because of her work, Matsumura, a Berkeley resident, knows exactly who the religious right is.

She serves as network project director for Science Education, Inc., an organization that fights to keep creationism out of school curricula. It's a position that requires Matsumura to keep vigilantly abreast of the religious right's efforts to tear down the walls separating church and state.

She encouraged the listeners to make themselves aware of such attempts, which panelists agreed are heightening in this election year as politicians attempt to secure votes. "This is a matter of all of us informing ourselves," she said.

The panel, titled "Inroads on Liberty?" and sponsored by the AJCommittee's Open Circle, a new group of Bay Area young professionals, attempted to inform a full house at the Jewish Community Federation building by highlighting the religious right's various targets.

Matsumura spoke of efforts — including legislation introduced in Georgia, New Hampshire and Ohio — to bring a religiously based view of creation into the schools.

DeeDee Workman, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, spoke of the religious right's attempts to thwart access to abortion: In the most extreme cases, these attempts include violence.

"Religious political extremists have created a climate of hostility that puts the lives of clinic workers and doctors at great risk," she said.

San Francisco attorney Martin Kassman, who is involved with the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, spoke of efforts to undermine fundamental religious freedoms — most recent is a push by Congressional Republicans to amend the Constitution to allow for organized school prayer.

And Rabbi Allen Bennett, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater East Bay, spoke of the religious right's relentless attention to such issues as gays in the military and same-sex marriage.

"Religious political extremists have used these issues as a way of taking attention away from other issues facing American society, some of them more serious," said Bennett, who is openly gay.

Decidedly motivated by a view of the religious right as a serious threat, the panel did not include a voice representing the contingent they criticized. At least one audience member publicly lamented this omission.

In fact, the single panelist billed as an alternative to the majority viewpoint revealed himself to be deeply concerned that the religious right's assault on tolerance in America is giving faith a bad name.

That panelist was Christopher Freeman Adams, associate director of the Graduate Theological Union's Center for Ethics and Social Policy in Berkeley and director of the Interfaith Alliance of Northern California, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to provide spiritual seekers with an alternative path to that of the religious right.

"We are an organization of people who are upset about what's being claimed in the name of faith in this country," Adams said.

He acknowledged that the religious right addresses a legitimate need for answers among some Americans, but encouraged a model for addressing those questions that is not "coercive, intolerant, demonizing."

"Most people have not even tried to bring their religious values to the public square," he said, stressing the need for religious nonextremists to make their voices heard.

In addressing the panel's imbalance, meanwhile, event chair George Youngerman assured the audience that the AJCommittee will continue to monitor the religious right closely and that a discussion including a representative from that faction would be forthcoming.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.