SAN DIEGO — A group of conservative attorneys say they are on a mission from God to unseat four California judges in a rare challenge that is turning a traditionally snooze-button election into what both sides call a battle for the integrity of U.S. courts.
Vowing to be God's ambassadors on the bench, the four San Diego Superior Court candidates are backed by pastors, gun enthusiasts, and opponents of abortion and same-sex marriages.
"We believe our country is under assault and needs Christian values," said Craig Candelore, a family law attorney who is one of the group's candidates. "Unfortunately, God has called upon us to do this only with the judiciary."
The challenge is unheard of in California, one of 33 states to directly elect judges. Critics say the campaign is aimed at packing the courts with judges who adhere to the religious right's moral agenda and threatens both the impartiality of the court system and the separation of church and state.
Opponents fear the June 8 race is a strategy that could transform courtroom benches just like some school boards, which have seen an increasing number of Christian conservatives win seats in cities across the country and push for such issues as prayer in classrooms.
Called "Better Courts Now," the movement was the brainchild of Don Hamer, San Diego County's late Zion Christian Fellowship pastor who campaigned locally for California's ban on gay marriage, Proposition 8, and vetted candidates before he died of a heart attack in March. His fellow pastor, Brian Hendry, and other supporters have carried on his legacy, launching the mostly online campaign to replace the incumbent judges — all Democrats — with Christian conservatives.
The district attorney and nearly every judge on the bench are endorsing incumbents Lantz Lewis, Robert Longstreth and Joel Wohlfeil, rated by the San Diego County Bar Association as "well qualified," its highest grade. Judge DeAnn Salcido received the bar's lowest mark.
The Better Courts Now candidates accused the bar of being swayed by politics. Candelore said a victory would mark only the beginning: "If we can take our judiciary, we can take our legislature and our executive branch."