Louisiana State Rep. Tony Perkins, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, joined the Family Research Council (FRC) this month as its new president. The Washington, D.C.-based FRC is one the nation’s most influential public policy organizations focusing on the social-conservative agenda.
In the Louisiana legislature, Perkins earned a reputation as a warrior for conservative social causes. A staunch pro-life advocate, he crafted legislation to regulate the state’s abortion clinics. He also sponsored bills to install Internet filters on public school computers and increase the participation of faith-based organizations in state prisons. Most notably, he authored Louisiana’s “covenant marriage” law. Under this law, couples choosing to take out a special marriage license are required to undergo counseling before they wed, and also in the event they seek a divorce.
Last year, Perkins ran as a Republican for the U.S. Senate, proudly telling voters he was “pro-family, pro-life, pro-business, pro-military and pro-cutting the taxes on working families.”
Perkins visited the offices of HUMAN EVENTS on September 8 for an interview the editors. This is an edited transcript of their conversation
HUMAN EVENTS: What is the biggest issue for the Family Research Council in the coming year? What’s going to be your primary focus?
TONY PERKINS: Coming into the current public policy debate over marriage, I think, by far is going to be the most significant issue for FRC, which is obviously focused on marriage, on family, on those issues. This whole debate over preserving the traditional, historical meaning of marriage is going to be our primary focus.
Specifically, that means endorsing and promoting the Federal Marriage Amendment?
PERKINS: A federal marriage amendment that addresses the issue and what other means that we have available to limit the judicial tyranny that has brought this issue to the forefront.
Are you committed to specific language for the federal marriage amendment at this point?
PERKINS: We’re looking at the language with the other groups. I know there are some concerns that the language may not be tight enough. Hopefully, within the next few weeks we’ll all have language or agree to go with the existing language. But I think that without a doubt that this must be resolved through the Constitution.
Ideally, would you like to see a marriage amendment that would restrict states from recognizing gay civil unions or anything that made homosexual relations akin to marriage?
PERKINS: I think that any type of counterfeiting needs to be prohibited.
In the Constitution of the United States?
PERKINS: Short of that, it’s not going to happen. There are arguments that the existing language does that. And I’ve listened to both sides, and I have respect for opinions on both sides of the issue. Anytime you leave anything open to the courts to decide, there could be some problems. But we’re going to have to see what language we can get through the process.
Do you see a broad and focused coalition of conservative organizations getting behind a single marriage amendment and trying to push it through the Congress?
PERKINS: Absolutely. I think this is the issue of our generation. Whoever defines marriage will determine the future of the country and will determine the history of the country.
What groups do you see working with the Family Research Council towards that end?
PERKINS: I would say a broad coalition of all the organizations. We’ve got to get through the part of coming to agreement on the language, but I think everyone shares the concern over the significance of defining marriage, Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum, Christian Coalition, Empower America, you just go down the list. They all see this as the issue.
You’ve been serving as an elected official. You’re a politician and a legislator. How are you going to convince legislators here to take what is a good policy issue and recognize that this is also a great political issue that they should be grabbing and running with it in 2004 when, in fact, there are a lot of Republicans who are saying, “No, you can’t go into this gay thing. You can’t do this. It’s going to lose. It’s in our interest to keep the Republican Party away from the issue.”
PERKINS: I saw this even on the state level. We dealt with probably no less than four times-attempted repeals of the sodomy law in Louisiana. And the Republicans, nobody really wanted to touch the issue. They were just kind of hoping it would go into the closet and stay there. They just didn’t want to deal with it. But it’s an issue that the public polling data shows that the public does not want to go that way. They do not want to go to same-sex marriage. I think they are going to be forced to deal with it, and we plan to continue to communicate the essential nature of this issue to the public and in turn, to Congress. This is an issue that they must deal with. They must deal with it now.
President Bush several weeks ago now said that he wanted to preserve the definition of marriage. Now, is the fact that the Bush Administration still has not endorsed the language proposed by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) mean that they are not satisfied with it either?
PERKINS: No, I wouldn’t say that. I think they are waiting to see, make sure that there’s agreement among the conservative groups on the language before they step into it. I think they’ll eventually come to the table on it.
So we can’t wait for them to do anything, they’re waiting for you.
PERKINS: Well, I wouldn’t characterize it as that. I think they will certainly be a part of the process. But I think they do not want to wade into this issue while it’s still unsettled among the conservative groups because they don’t want to be caught in the crossfire, and I agree with that. I don’t think that would be helpful.
Miguel Estrada, whom President Bush nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, has withdrawn his nomination. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York made it pretty clear that they were basically imposing a litmus test on this guy. Estrada wouldn’t come clean on where he stood on certain social issues, particularly abortion, and they weren’t going to let him through. (They also held up this question about the memos Estrada had written when he was in the Solicitor General’s office that the Justice Department would not produce for the Judiciary Committee, but I don’t think anybody believes that’s the real reason the Democrats blocked him.) What role is the Family Research Council going to play in trying to build the case for nominees like Estrada to be confirmed?
PERKINS: I’ll say first off that the whole area of judicial activism is of grave concern. We see it as a common thread through the Ten Commandments issue in Alabama, school prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, partial-birth abortion. All of those issues have a common denominator, which is the federal courts. We think it’s imperative that the President be able to get his nominees through the process. FRC has been supportive of Estrada and others on the grassroots through our Family Policy Councils, which we have in 38 states, trying to put pressure there to get them through the process. We will continue to assist the administration in trying to get good judges onto the bench.
Do you think the Republican Senate leadership fought hard enough for Estrada’s nomination?
PERKINS: I don’t think the Republican leadership fights the same way that the Democratic leadership fights. We’re going to have be a little more forceful, I think, in dealing with the Democratic leadership in getting some of these nominees through.
A lot of conservatives were saying that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee should have forced the Democrats to conduct a real old-fashioned “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style filibuster, where they would have to stand on the Senate floor like Strom Thurmond once did for segregation if they wanted to defend something as onerous as their litmus test for judges. They ought to be forced to make that public display. Do you endorse that view?
PERKINS: It may be an option. There’s going to come a point where we just got to say that enough is enough. The President has been stonewalled on almost every one of his major judicial nominees, and if that’s what it’s going to take, playing a little hardball on our side, then I think that would be fine.
It seems like that People for the American Way on the left is constantly doing whatever they can to dig up “dirt” or build a case or an argument that the Democrats can use against conservative nominees. In fact, I think basically that Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah was saying throughout the Estrada debate that the Democrats on the committee were parroting the People for the American Way. Is it your aspiration for the Family Research Council to provide the counter-arguments to People for the American Way on behalf of nominees like Estrada?
PERKINS: Well, we hope to have a little more intelligent approach. I think that what we want to do is continue to point to the fruits of the judicial tyranny that’s taking place. That speaks more than the talk about the characteristics of the individuals. What we talk about is what they have done on the bench, and people can sink their teeth into the fact that prayer has been taken out of the schools, the Ten Commandments are being removed from public buildings by federal judges over the desires of locally elected officials, marriage is under attack. And when they begin to see the common connection there of the judges, I think that’s when the message comes very clear at home, and hopefully transcends the distance here to Washington to their senators.
When Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Pryor testified before the Judiciary Committee, he took a different approach than the other Bush nominees. Estrada and Owen, for example, said that they thought that Roe v. Wade was settled law and didn’t directly address the merits of it. Pryor plainly said that he thought that Roe v. Wade was incorrectly decided. Which way do you think conservatives should go on this? Should we want judicial nominees who go out and say, “Yes, I think that Roe v. Wade was wrong. I think that the court was wrong on the Michigan case.” Or should they play their cards close to the vest the way so many of the Republicans have in recent years?
PERKINS: I don’t know what would be my recommendation on it. I think sometimes we, as I have worked in the political process, and it’s a little easier for me now to speak freely because I’m no longer elected. I don’t have to get people’s votes. But sometimes you do have to play it a little closer to the vest and be a little smarter, but at the same time you’ve got to do it in such a way as not to alienate your base of support. That’s a tough question. It depends on the circumstances. I don’t think you could give a blanket answer to that and say, “In every scenario, do it this way.”
Bill Pryor was put into a very uncomfortable situation with the Ten Commandments, and while he had written extensively in favor of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s position over the years, in the end, he was forced to enforce the ruling to remove the Ten Commandments from the state Supreme Court building and then defend that move on television. Do you think that situation was created to put him in a bad spot and did he do the right thing, or should he have recused himself from enforcing it?
PERKINS: I don’t think it was created just to put him in a bad spot. I think fate found him in a bad spot. It’s hard to say what would have been the best thing for him to do. I think he did what he thought was right. I would tend to disagree with him. I don’t think that one man’s interpretation of the law is ultimately the law. Having our state officials stand up to federal officials on rulings that may be incorrect or that we have a question with is the process. That is actually how in the War for Independence, as we moved to seek our independence, the colonists didn’t go out on their own, they went through their local elected officials to appeal their stand against the rulings of the Crown. I think in many ways that’s the way the state system should work. It should challenge the federal government when it is wrong. I believe they’re wrong in this case.
To move from the state/federal distinction to the elected and unelected officials, the distinction there, has Congress basically abdicated as far as its responsibility in keeping the courts honest? It seems like a completely off-the-wall thing to say that judges should be impeached, but it seems it may be a perfectly reasonable thing to say when you have some of these decisions which have been handed down. And Congress has been dragging its feet for example on breaking up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals even after they say there is no 2nd Amendment, the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. Do you have other plans when you talk about judicial tyranny to work against that in Congress, which is a co-equal branch of government?
PERKINS: The problem began with the direct election of senators. That’s when the whole problem of the courts began because then the states could no longer hold the senators accountable for the judges. I’ve probably had at least a half-dozen laws that I have passed overwhelmingly through the state legislature only to be overturned by a federal judge. What can I do about it? I can be frustrated, but I can’t go to my senators and say, “All right, we’re not going to reconfirm you, we’re not going to vote to send you back to Washington because you’re not looking out for state interests.” That didn’t happen before. There’s been a number of issues floated out there such as term limits for federal judges. I think that may be a good idea to look at. Limiting their terms.
What do you think of Rep. John Hostettler’s [R.-Ind.] attempt to prevent federal funds from going to U.S. Marshals to enforce these decisions?
PERKINS: That’s a band aid. I don’t want to take away from it, I think it’s probably well-intended, but it’s a band aid. We’ve got to get to the source of the problem.
We’re obsessed, of course, with what goes on in Washington and with what Congress does and the courts do, but isn’t the real root of the problem a broader cultural onslaught through the movies, through the schools, and the media and everywhere and it’s not just the government. Do you think that’s true and if so, how is FRC involved, or how should social conservatives be involved, in trying to counteract that onslaught?
PERKINS: It is cultural in many aspects-you’ve got messages coming from Hollywood-but you don’t see those issues that often coming through the legislative process where the people have a voice in it. I think Hollywood tries to shape public opinion, and the courts try to impose it. I think that, while at the same time addressing cultural issues, which FRC does, and we will continue to do with public awareness campaigns, part of our focus on marriage will not only be to push for a federal marriage amendment or other measures to restrict the jurisdiction of the courts, but most of my legislative career in Louisiana was focused on marriage policy and family policy, offering the covenant marriage law, which was designed to strengthen marriage and make it healthier, more stable, maturer. And so we’re going to be focused on those proactive things as well, enhancing family, enhancing marriage, not necessarily through government. Community marriage policies are a good example. The clergy comes together in an alliance and agree not to marry couples until they undergo pre-marital counseling. Government’s not involved in that, but it’s a community activity carried on by the clergy.
Things like that we’ll be involved in in addition to public policy. But it’s important to understand this because liberals understand this: They understand that public policy shapes culture, and we’ve got to be involved and engaged in this battle of shaping public policy as well as dealing with culture at the same time.
Do you have a feeling in general of how your supporters feel about President Bush’s efforts on the judges?
PERKINS: I certainly don’t think they hold the President accountable for his failure to get the judges through.
Do they think he should have fought more and fought more publicly?
PERKINS: I don’t think so. I think they see [Senate Minority Leader] Tom Daschle [D-S.D.] and crew as those responsible for blocking the judges. I don’t think they fault the President at all for failing to get his judicial nominees through. My personal feeling is that I have not picked up on that at all. I think there is some concern that he’s not been strong enough or vocal enough on some of the key social issues. They’ve not seen a lot of movement in Washington on those issues, and I think they would like to see more happen in that area, absolutely.
Can you be a little more specific about that?
PERKINS: I think there’s still concern that we have not got the partial-birth abortion ban through.
That’s in the Senate right now?
PERKINS: That’s in conference. I think, obviously, there is grave concern right now over the whole marriage issue. Now, while he did make a statement, and I think that action will be forthcoming, I do believe they would look to the President for more leadership on that issue, more definitive leadership. Just more association, I think, with people from the conservative faith-based community.