WASHINGTON -- Top conservative leaders gathered here a week after Terri Schiavo's death to plot a course of action against the nation's courts, but much of their anger was directed at leading Republicans, exposing an emerging crack between the party's leadership and core supporters on the right.
Conservative leaders criticized President Bush for failing to speak out strongly against removing the feeding tube from Schiavo, the 41-year-old incapacitated woman who died March 31. They blamed the president's brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, for failing to employ State Police powers to take control of Schiavo. They condemned comments by Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Vice President Dick Cheney expressing support for the nation's judges.
And yesterday they issued an ''action plan" to take their crusade for control of the nation's courts well beyond Senate debates over judicial nominees, pressing Congress to impeach judges and defund courts they consider ''activist" and to limit the jurisdiction of federal courts over some sensitive social matters -- a strategy opposed by many leading Senate Republicans.
''This is not a Democrat- Republican issue; it is a liberal-conservative issue," Rick Scarborough, a Baptist minister and chair of the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration, sponsor of the gathering, said in an interview. ''It's about a temporal versus eternal value system. We are not going away."
The strategy session of more than 200 conservative activist leaders, in the works since February, was organized by a multifaith roster that included Protestant evangelicals such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and home school activist Michael Farris, Catholics such as former Vatican ambassador Raymond L. Flynn, and Jews such as Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who runs the group Toward Tradition.
While conservatives have long accused liberal judges of making, rather than interpreting, laws, Massachusetts' adoption of gay marriage last year and Schiavo's death last week have magnified their fury. Whereas before they complained about ''judicial arrogance," speakers this week accused courts of ''gang violence" and waging ''unholy war" -- and drew applause when they called for the removal of judges who believe that interpretations of the US Constitution should change with the times. Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, called the situation ''a crisis."
Just five months ago, religious conservatives were a critical voting bloc for President Bush. Since then, they have become increasingly restless, first over the White House's reluctance to pursue a constitutional ban on gay marriage because of fears over a shortage of votes in Congress, and now over the failure of President Bush and Governor Bush to save Schiavo's life.
''Jeb Bush should have issued an executive order and brought her into state custody. He had the authority," said former chief justice Roy S. Moore of Alabama, who has become a celebrity of the right since being ousted for defying a court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Judicial Building.
The Florida governor has said he exerted all his legal powers to block Schiavo's death. A Florida judge ruled that Bush had no legal authority to seek custody of the brain-damaged woman. But Moore insisted that the governor and President Bush could have gone further.
''The president should have spoken out more," Moore said. ''They have got to stop letting the courts run over the Constitution."
''All this blabbing about a culture of life, and they allow this murder," said John Lofton, an activist who distributed his column condemning the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with longstanding White House ties, for failing to support efforts to keep Schiavo alive.
President Bush may have further complicated his relations with conservative activists yesterday, when he responded to a reporter's question about whether the Schiavo case showed that judges were out of control and should be held responsible. ''I believe in an independent judiciary. I believe in proper checks and balances," the president said in an interview with reporters on Air Force One as he returned from Pope John Paul II's funeral in Rome. His comments drew praise from Democrats such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
During the two-day meeting, conservative leaders repeatedly criticized the Supreme Court, where a majority of the justices are Republican appointees. But their heightened distrust of Republican-appointed judges crystallized yesterday afternoon when Moore rolled a film clip of then-Attorney General William H. Pryor of Alabama asking Moore, who at the time was the state's top judge, whether he would ''continue to acknowledge God" inside the court, even if ordered to stop. Moore refused to budge, and lost his seat on the bench.
In early 2004, President Bush granted Pryor a recess appointment to the 11th Circuit. Pryor is a major target of the left: Senate Democrats twice used filibusters to block votes on his nomination. But the staunchly conservative Moore also considers Pryor an enemy -- and further evidence that Republican-appointed judges cannot be trusted.
Asked if conservatives should press the Senate to exercise the so-called ''nuclear option" of banning filibusters so that Democrats cannot stand in the way of votes on Bush nominees, Moore answered: ''What's the point? To get judges on the court who say you cannot acknowledge God, like Bill Pryor?"
Moore instead supports legislation to strip the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over cases in which public officials have cited God ''as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government." The bill also calls for the impeachment of any judge who cites foreign law in a ruling.
In the past couple of years, the Republican-controlled House has passed six bills limiting court jurisdiction over social and religious issues. But those efforts have not gained traction in the Senate, where leading Republicans prefer a strategy of pressing for speedy confirmation of Bush nominees.
Michael Schwartz, chief of staff to Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said a ''mass impeachment" of judges might be warranted. But Thomas Jipping, counselor to Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, and a veteran judicial strategist, rejected such extreme measures. ''What we really have to focus on is appointing the right kind of judges in the first place," Jipping said.
In the charged battle over the future of the nation's courts, conservatives so far are outgunned financially. Last week, liberal groups mounted a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign designed to build support for the filibuster and thwart Senate confirmation of nominees they consider extremists who will pursue a ''radical agenda and favor corporate interests over our interests," as one MoveOn.org radio advertisement intoned.
Activists on the right say they do not have the resources to match that effort. But they do play a critical role in Republican primaries, and can effectively exert pressure on politicians.
Frist, a likely candidate for president in 2008, angered social conservatives last week when he said, ''I believe we have a fair and independent judiciary today" and held open the possibility of a compromise with Democrats over the filibuster. In an interview at the conference, Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly described Frist as a ''nice man," but warned that ''his fate hangs on whether he puts the judges through. If he doesn't, it's his last blast."
Cheney, too, was criticized for refusing to back efforts to impeach judges who blocked restoration of Schiavo's feeding tube. ''I don't think that's appropriate," Cheney told the New York Post. ''There's a reason why judges get lifetime appointments."
The gathering's hero was House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas, now under fire on ethics charges. DeLay, who has called for retribution against judges in the Schiavo case, said Congress should ''reassert [its] constitutional authority over our courts."
''The failure to a great degree is Congress," he said in a video he taped because he was attending the pope's funeral. ''This era of constitutional cowardice must end."