Christian conservatives set for inaugural revelry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Forget the stress and last-minute headaches from President Bush's first inauguration. This time, Michelle Ammons is wrapping herself in her mother's fox-collared dress, stepping into the most exclusive of inaugural balls and celebrating.

"This year we want to go and just enjoy the inaugural," said the Christian Coalition executive staff member. "They've taken very good care of us."

In 2001, she and her colleagues were largely outside the official festivities, working hard to hold their own events, trying to prove their political mettle. This year, the Christian Coalition leaders and other religious conservatives will be inside the main party tents.

They're reaping the fruits of their efforts to help elect Bush in November. Not only are they celebrating a new term for a president they supported, but they're feeling feted.

They'll be close enough to see Bush place his hand on the Bible tomorrow. They'll be at the Texas and Wyoming Inaugural Ball that night. They'll be in VIP reserved seating at Friday's prayer service at the National Cathedral.

Of course, they'll have some of their own parties, too. But now those parties will be headlined by the most sought-after speakers and filled with the right inside-the-Beltway names.

The Traditional Values Coalition gala tonight has outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft as the scheduled speaker and presidential adviser Karl Rove and Bush's campaign manager Ken Mehlman on the guest list. That will come on the heels of last night's party, held by three Christian conservative groups, where Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was scheduled to speak and dozens of members of Congress were to have clinked glasses.

"We have a lot to be thankful for, said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, founder of the Traditional Values Coalition.

At their gala four years ago, the headliners were mostly Christian speakers. Rove came by, but it was "more of a stop-by," said Sheldon.

This year, Sheldon expects Rove to mingle longer, especially since the Ritz-Carlton event will be more lavish and double the size with 800 guests. At the same time, religious leaders predict a larger presence of Christian conservatives in Washington for this inaugural.

Ammons of the Christian Coalition said that pastors from around the country have been swamping the group's phone lines to ask about how to get last-minute tickets. And groups such as the Family Research Council are holding open houses to give their membership a place to warm up between events. Outside events might also be encouraging more Christians to consider a trek to Washington this week.

A San Francisco atheist trying to block the inclusion of prayer at the inauguration ceremony appealed his case to the Supreme Court yesterday. The challenge, which was rejected by two lower courts, has enraged many Christians who see it as an act of religious discrimination.

A coinciding event that also will draw many religious conservatives to Washington is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Annually, anti-abortion groups march from the White House to the steps of the Supreme Court to mark the day and reiterate their intent to overturn that ruling. This year, March For Life events begin on Saturday, the anniversary, and extend through Monday, the day of the march. The last Bush inauguration helped the 2001 march ranks swell to 225,000.

"We have lots and lots of people coming in for that," said Ammons.

Beyond those events, interest in the inauguration is up from four years ago, Christian conservative leaders said, because there is a deeper sense of connection with Bush now that he is entering his second term.

Bush has long talked about his faith and how it informs his politics. But Sheldon said four years ago there was lingering trepidation about him.

Without a record, it was unclear how the new president would fare on issues that mattered to Christian conservative groups. "Now we know he's one of us," Sheldon said.

One Texas-based tour group that specializes in mission work and Christian-themed trips has designed its first-ever inaugural tour for students in Washington this week. Tommy Horan, the marketing director for Joshua Expeditions, said some customers wanted to wait until after the election before committing.

"If [John] Kerry had won, they weren't so sure they wanted to go," he said.

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