Religious Wrong

Mesa Republican Representative Russell Pearce, co-chairman of the powerful Arizona House Appropriations Committee, is launching a pitched assault on the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Pearce, a member of the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church, put language in this year's state budget bill to eliminate funding for campus publications in Arizona because they have run stories and photographs he considers offensive. The next step is for the bill, which passed on a split vote of the Appropriations Committee, to go before the full House.

Pearce claims he was approached by several legislators who were outraged by sex columns in Arizona campus papers, including one in Arizona State University's State Press that gauges students' sexual techniques. The State Press column by Erika Wurst is accompanied by what Pearce considers sexually explicit photos.

"If you want to be a free press, be a free press, but we're not going to subsidize articles that are over the top, and there were a lot of folks that felt [such articles were] over the top," Pearce told the Associated Press.

Could Pearce, who did not return my phone calls, also have been talking to the Phoenix-based crackpot group Americans for Decency, which recently listed the State Press as the number two threat to decency in the entire state?

Mark Goodman, executive director for the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia, says he can't recall another case where a state has tried to throw a blanket ban on student press funding.

"It's disheartening that public officials are so ignorant of the First Amendment," Goodman says. "[Legislators] can't take out a partial form of speech solely as a way to punish students or prevent them from publishing things [the lawmakers] don't like."

Cameron Eickmeyer, editor of the State Press, isn't sure the "footnote" Pearce added to the budget bill has much chance of passing. He thinks the lawmaker may be merely posturing to his constituents.

"I think it's a political statement more than anything for Pearce," Eickmeyer says. "The next time reelection comes up, he could say, 'Well, I fought that battle.'"

Indeed, many state political insiders think Governor Janet Napolitano would exercise her line-item veto power on the spending bill and excise Pearce's provision.

But let's not forget that the governor has a history of kowtowing to powerful Mormons in the Legislature. She's kept her head buried firmly in the sand when it comes to the sexual abuses of underage girls in the fundamentalist Mormon enclave of Colorado City. I'm not the only one who thinks this is because she doesn't want to offend the likes of Pearce by airing out the Mormon Church's polygamous dirty laundry -- even if it means offending her bedrock feminist constituency.

Pearce's unabashed grab for the censorship scissors shouldn't be dismissed as a nod to his electorate, or as the misguided ravings of an East Valley bonehead who has no understanding of the Constitution.

This obscene attack on the free press is part of a broad-based assault by religious zealots and conservative Republicans led by President Bush to destroy a pillar of American democracy -- the separation between church and state.

This is not the first attack on Arizona's college newspapers.

ASU's State Press came under fire last year after another prominent Mormon -- homebuilding mogul Ira Fulton -- complained to ASU President Michael Crow about a black-and-white photo illustration in the campus paper of a bare breast with a pierced nipple.

Fulton is one of the wealthiest men in Arizona. He has a reported net worth of $355 million and has given ASU $58 million since 2003. Crow -- who's always on the make for cash to build his "New American University" -- responded to Fulton's complaint by threatening to eliminate funding to the State Press.

Crow has since toned down the rhetoric. The administration at ASU hinted to Pearce that it would prefer he drop his effort to eliminate funding to campus publications, but it stopped short of officially opposing the language in the bill. Crow didn't respond to my attempts to reach him for further comment.

Asked if he's concerned that Crow and the administration haven't come out strongly against the budget bill addendum, State Press editor Eickmeyer says, "It would be nice to know that [the administration] has our backs. Then again, I haven't heard anything to the contrary [from Crow's office]."

The First Amendment attacks by Pearce and Fulton pack far more thunder than a mere attempt to cut a small amount of funding from campus media. (ASU's campus media receive $153,000 of their $1.5 million annually from the university. The rest comes mostly from advertising sales. It's unclear whether the student media would be forced to vacate campus offices if Pearce's legislation became law.)

Pearce and Fulton's 175-year-old Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long viewed the separation of church and state as a pesky inconvenience.

Mormonism was founded on the belief that church leaders should not only control spiritual life, but also civil authority. Mormonism's early leaders, including founder Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, advocated the creation of a collectivist society controlled by their religion.

We only have to look 300 miles north to Colorado City to see the danger to personal freedom that lurks when hard-core, fundamental Mormonism takes control of a community.

The polygamous leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints controls all aspects of life in Colorado City. There is no dissent, no political debate, no free elections. It's a theocracy driven by the belief that men must acquire at least three wives to reach the highest levels of heaven and that women must acquiesce to obtain eternal salvation.

The mainstream church, to which Pearce and Fulton belong, no longer practices polygamy and is not as fanatical as the Colorado City offshoot. But both sects believe that government should be subservient to the church.

Which is why I cringe when I see a state legislator like Pearce trying to chisel away at the First Amendment. It's even more troubling when big-money guys like Fulton get into the game.

Though I don't know if Ira Fulton had anything to do with Pearce's current attempt at censorship (Fulton didn't return my calls, either), he certainly has tried to suggest what student publications shouldn't publish in the recent past.

Fulton also has made it clear that he wants Crow to gut ASU's party-hearty image and transform the campus into the southern branch of Mormon-owned Brigham Young University.

I find this both amusing and disturbing.

For starters, no amount of religious propaganda is going to stifle the libido of college students, particularly at ASU.

More troubling, however, is that Fulton, Pearce and other fanatics believe they have a mandate from the top to stamp out individual rights they find offensive -- in the name of God, of course.

Government by revelation has its roots in the White House. A nation whipped into fear and looking for God to solve secular issues has led to a severe curtailment of our personal freedom.

We need look no further than the Patriot Act to see where the post-9/11 United States is heading. This federal legislation gives the government unprecedented power to intrude into our privacy and suspend our civil rights to "protect" us from unspecified and nebulous "terrorist" threats.

Pearce's attempt to step on campus publications for moralistic reasons -- though part of this same notion that it's suddenly the government's God-given right to interfere -- pales by comparison.

The Patriot Act opens the door to all kinds of chilling possibilities. Unless we are vigilant, this law could morph into a powerful tool to quash domestic dissent.

Civil-liberties advocates are urging Congress to oppose renewal of the act, set to expire in October, without substantial changes. This is the most important legislation that Congress will debate this year.

The Patriot Act has already spurred state legislatures -- including Arizona's -- to pass bills expanding the definition of terrorism to include people far removed from Osama bin Laden's netherworld of suicide bombers.

The Arizona Legislature passed a terrorism bill last year that was a thinly veiled attempt to stifle civil disobedience. The bill called for felony racketeering charges to be applied in certain cases. Anyone convicted would have been forced to register with county sheriff's offices as a terrorist and have his name posted on Internet Web sites.

Such legislation -- which was strongly supported by Mormon legislators Andy Biggs and House Majority Leader Eddie Farnsworth -- would have profound implications.

"Under the definition you would be adopting here and the activity described as terrorism, the civil rights movement would have been a terrorist activity," declares Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Governor Napolitano managed to muster up the courage to veto the bill last year. More such legislation will probably come her way again this session. Where will the Religious Right's effort to expand the definition of "terrorism" stop?

Will it include anyone who dares to oppose drilling for oil in pristine territory, or object to the use of animals in medical experiments, or support gay marriage, or back a woman's right to choose?

These issues traditionally have been debated outside the distorting lens of religion. They have been debated in a free press.

Now conservative Mormons, such as Pearce, Farnsworth and Biggs, are hell-bent on dragging their religious beliefs into all manner of political debate -- the First Amendment be damned.

And why shouldn't they?

When John Kerry was debating George W. Bush in the presidential race, Kerry would quote statistics he'd read in the New York Times as proof that he was right. Bush would scoff at the press reports from the nation's newspaper of record. He'd boast that God was telling him what to do, not the so-called liberal media.

Now, all Russell Pearce has to do to squelch criticism of his moralistic effort to cut funding to campus publications in Arizona is claim the idea was from God's mouth to his ear. Who can argue with logic like that in Dubya's America?

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty