Seven years ago the new head of the National Organization for Marriage, John Eastman, testified at a House impeachment hearing in Denver called by then-first-term-Rep. Greg Brophy. The staunch social conservative lawmaker from Wray drew national attention when he targeted Denver Judge John Coughlin as an “activist judge” who took it upon himself to make pro-gay laws from the bench.
Eastman, a California professor who had earlier filed a brief with the US Supreme Court arguing that Boy Scouts could exclude gay troop leaders, was one of two legal experts Brophy brought in to testify against Coughlin. The other expert, Steven Fitschen, came from Christian-right evangelist Pat Robertson’s National Legal Foundation in Virginia.
As journalists covering the hearing pointed out, although Coughlin was ostensibly being placed under the House spotlight for judicial overreaching, the real issue was gay rights.
“Coughlin has been on the bench nearly 25 years. He’s been re-elected to the bench by voters. He’s been given high marks by a state judicial review commission,” the Denver Post reported. “At the hearing, three private lawyers – including a former Republican state representative – testified to his competence. So did an ex-chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, two other former judges and a prosecutor. [But] Brophy says Coughlin must be impeached for malfeasance for a single decision that tried to keep a little girl from being taught to hate a woman who helped raise her.”
The hearing stemmed from Coughlin’s decision in a custody dispute between a lesbian couple. One of the women, Cheryl Clark, adopted a child and shared parental rights with her partner, Elsey McLeod, but then Clark converted to Christianity, renounced homosexuality, and sought to deny parental rights to McLeod. Even though gay couples could not marry then as now in Colorado and so McLeod technically had no rights, Coughlin granted joint custody to the moms and ruled that the child should be guarded against homophobic church teachings.
Eastman argued the matter was “a pure question of law” and that McLeod was entitled to nothing in the dispute because she had no legal standing as a parent in Colorado. According to reports, he added that “giving McLeod any consideration in the case would be a violation of Clark’s religious freedom.” He warned the committee in passing that, in Canada, “there’s a move afoot to define reading of the Bible as a hate crime because it is anti-homosexual.”
Republicans Gov. Bill Owens and Senate President John Andrews opposed Brophy’s resolution. In the end, it was voted down eight to three. Brophy said he was trying to send a message to judges around the country and that he thought he had succeeded. Committee chairwoman Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, however, said Brophy and his two witnesses had failed to persuade.
“I think, quite frankly, that [Coughlin] acted with compassion,” she said. “I don’t see this rising to the level of impeachment.”
That was then. The momentum has been mostly swinging in favor of “compassion” in the years since, in the public square and in legislatures and courts across the land.
Brian Brown, president of NOM, on Thursday signaled at the shifting terrain of the gay-rights debate when he explained his group would be replacing passionate antigay activist and NOM co-founder Maggie Gallagher with law professor Eastman. Brown touted Eastman’s legal credentials.
“[Eastman] is one of America’s foremost constitutional scholars and has distinguished himself as a fierce advocate for families and religious liberty. As a legal scholar, he has participated in dozens of cases before our nation’s highest courts, including the United States Supreme Court. When important constitutional principles are on the line, people frequently turn to John Eastman to advocate a conservative, pro-family position.”[ Top image: John Eastman ]