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What you believe about the Terri Schiavo case depends on what you believe in.

If you believe our government exists merely to carry out the demands of religious zealots, then you approve of the latest circus. If you believe in the law, the Constitution and the separation of powers, then you believe it’s wrong. Never have we seen more disgusting political pandering.

First things first. By attempting to clobber state and federal courts into reinserting Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, the Bush brothers, Bill Frist and Tom Delay were not acting out of any respect for life. If so, why haven’t they done anything about the loss of life in Rwanda or the Sudan?

In August 2001, President Bush shrugged off warnings that al-Qaida was planning terrorist strikes against the United States. Earlier this year, he waited three days before commenting on the tsunami disaster. And we’re supposed to believe he hopped on Air Force One and rushed back to Washington to sign the Schiavo legislation in his pajamas after suddenly discovering a reverence for life? Get serious.

No, it wasn’t reverential concern for life that prompted the Republicans’ series of reckless Holy Week interventions. It was cheap concern for religious conservative votes. According to the Washington Post, Republican leaders themselves let the cat out of the bag in a memo telling Republican senators why it was important to interrupt their Easter vacations: “This is a great political issue … and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue.”

Besides, at some point, the question must be asked: What is life? It’s more than breathing. If a person can’t speak, think, communicate, walk, sit up, get out of bed, feed herself or control her bodily functions – for 15 years! – that’s not life. Terri Schiavo should have been allowed to die with dignity, especially since she had earlier expressed her desire not to be kept alive by artificial means. The pope may not agree, but the president and Congress were elected to serve the people, not the pope.

On every level, the grandstanding by President Bush and Congress was wrong, if not illegal. By law, Congress may not pass legislation without holding hearings, gathering evidence and hearing public testimony. There was not one fact-finding hearing in this case. By law, Congress may also not enact legislation that affects only one person. Yet that is exactly how the Schiavo legislation was written. Similar legislation, enacted in Florida last year, was declared unconstitutional. So’s this one.

Not only that, Congress cannot simply overturn the decision of a state or federal judge. Our Founding Fathers didn’t want hotheaded politicians running roughshod over the judiciary. That’s why they wrote the separation of powers into the Constitution: so judges could interpret the law without being bullied by the likes of Tom DeLay.

And, of course, our founders also reserved to states those powers not clearly delegated to the federal government. However, Republicans threw states’ rights out the window in Florida – first in 2000, and now again in 2005 – in favor of more Big Brother. Under President Bush, they’ve planted federal cops in every bedroom, courtroom, TV studio and, now, every hospital room or hospice.

It’s hard to figure out what Republicans stand for anymore. They believe in states’ rights, unless they disagree with what the states are doing. They believe in the separation of powers, unless they disagree with a judge’s decision. They believe in smaller federal government, except when it suits their purposes to expand federal government. They believe in the separation of church and state, until they get a phone call from Jerry Falwell. In other words, they believe in nothing but pure political power.

Shame on those Republican leaders who, as Republican Rep. Christopher Shays lamented, have turned the party of Lincoln into “a party of theocracy.” And shame also on those Democrats, the cowardly opposition, who stood by silently and let it happen.

The worst part about the sad Terri Schiavo carnival is that it forces big government where it does not belong. Making a decision on whether to continue life support for a loved one is probably the toughest decision any of us will ever have to make. It’s a decision our families should be able to make privately: in consultation with our minister, other family members and our doctor. It’s no place for cheap, grandstanding politicians.

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