Congressman Canady

The Quiet Tornado

by Jennifer Ferranti Charles Canady has always played by the rules. In junior high, for example, the future congressman took very seriously his roles as a member of the school patrol.

"It was very frustrating to him," recalls his father, Charles Sr. "He couldn’t understand why kids didn’t do what they were supposed to do."

Today, the 43-year-old congressman isn’t just playing by the rules, he’s helping to make them. From his perch atop the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Canady’s goal isn’t to polish his image, but to get things done.

"What I want to see is something that can pass," says the third-term Republican. "Something that can make a difference."

Conservatives agree that this Florida congressman has been making a big difference since he came to Washington in 1992. It was Canady who initiated the Defense of Marriage Act, heading off efforts in Hawaii to legalize same-sex marriages. He is sponsor of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act which, despite being vetoed twice by President Clinton, could still pass later this year. And Canady’s Civil Rights Act of 1997, a bill to end preferential treatment at the federal level, could finally make it to the House floor for a vote in this session.

Canady’s latest task is to protect religious liberty. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June to strike down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), it will largely be up to Canady whether a replacement for RFRA makes it through the House.

Canady says he will certainly guide the legislation through a hearing and markup in his subcommittee, but he is also seriously considering serving as the bill’s primary sponsor. First, however, the meticulous lawyer wants to study every detail of the proposed legislation.

"I want to be prepared to answer the questions," Canady explains, "to make certain I have an exhaustive understanding of what I’m doing."

Just like in junior high, Canady is still playing by the rules.

Canady’s Capitol Hill office is as quiet and orderly as a library, its walls lined with several hundred books on history, politics, law and religion. His diligence, meanwhile, has so impressed his colleagues and the media that they’ve dubbed him "the workhorse" of Capitol Hill.

But even more than his thoroughness, Canady is admired for his character.

"He is a man of principle before politics," says Steve McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for law and Religious Freedom. "It’s so refreshing to sit with a congressman whose first question is, ’Is this best and is it right?’ rather than ’Who likes it and how will it help me?’"

Being motivated by principle has sometimes meant extra work for Canady. Just ask Kathryn Lehman–who spent eight years as chief counsel for the Constitution subcommittee–about the Defense of Marriage Act, which says that states can refuse to recognize homosexual marriages.

"We were up to our eyeballs in work," Lehman says. "But Mr. Canady was very concerned about the efforts in Hawaii to legalize homosexual marriages. Finally, he called and said, ’I know how busy we are, but my conscience is bothering me. We have to do something about this.’"

Living by principle, however, doesn’t always make for good sound bites. Canady is aware that many people have pegged him as soft-spoken or even lackluster.

"Most people perceive me to be mild-mannered–and that’s accurate most of the time," Canady admits, "but I can be very passionate and I will fight tenaciously for things I think are important."

That’s true, says Jay Sekulow, who defends religious freedom as chief counsel for the American Center for Liberty and Justice.

"I liken him to a quiet tornado," Sekulow says. "I think he’s one of the strongest defenders of the family and the faith we have in Congress."

Christian legal experts like Sekulow are glad to see Canady at the helm of the Constitution subcommittee–where most legislation affecting religious liberty starts out.

While Canady says a religious liberty amendment "promises to be the most comprehensive way of dealing with some of the challenges to religious expression in our country," he acknowledges that constitutional amendments are very difficult to pass. He is far more optimistic about passing legislation that mirrors the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and can withstand judicial scrutiny.

Canady’s committee is where pro-family members hope to revive RFRA. The legislation sailed through Congress in 1993 to counter an earlier Supreme Court ruling that severely limited religious liberties. RFRA prohibited federal, state or local government from "substantially burdening" free religious exercise, except in cases where there is a "compelling government interest," such as public safety.

The Supreme Court, however, slapped down the popular law last year, setting the stage for a confrontation between the court and Congress.

"That ruling was perhaps the greatest threat to religious liberty in this century," says Charles Colson, president of Prison Fellowship and an outspoken critic of America’s courts. "If Congress does not overrule this decision, religious liberty will be reduced to a second-class right."

Already, RFRA’s demise has allowed an Ohio court to stop a school-voucher program in CLEVELAND because it permitted parents to choose religious schools, an Alabama court to prohibit a judge from displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, and a city in Texas to block a church from expanding to accommodate more people.

Canady says the court’s decision leaves RFRA’s application to federal law intact, but that a "RFRA II" is needed to limit the states’ ability to regulate and restrict religious practices. When Canady decided to enter politics 15 years ago, he told people he wanted to protect religious freedom. Now he has that chance.

"I thought that in public life, there would be occasions for me to stand up for religious liberty," he says.

Born in the district he represents–conservative Polk County in the heart of central Florida’s citrus country–it’s no surprise Canady grew up to be a congressman and defender of faith and freedom.

His mother was an elementary school teacher. His father was also an educator who later changed careers and spent 18 years as top staffer to Lawton Chiles, now governor of Florida.

When Canady Sr., describes his son’s childhood, one can’t help but picture a miniature version of the congressman he is today.

"Charles loved school and books," says his father. "In fact, he read the encyclopedia for fun."

At age 10, Canady began helping his dad with political campaigns–making signs, handing out brochures, tallying poll results. By the time he was in high school, his parents suspected he might go into politics.

"Charles had a real interest in public speaking and student government," his father says. "He was doing all those things someone does who wants to serve in public office."

Canady majored in political science at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1979. He then returned home to Lakeland, the largest city in Polk County, and specialized in civil appellate work.

Three years later, at age 28, Canady lost his first bid for office. Two years later, with his dad managing his campaign, Canady ran again as a Democrat against the same incumbent state legislator. This time he won.

Even as a Democrat Canady worked well with Republican legislators, with whom he shared a conservative alignment. Over time, however, Canady became less comfortable as a Democrat, and his Democratic colleagues grew less accepting of his conservative views.

"There was less and less room for a conservative voice in the Democratic Party," Canady says. "The candidacy of Michael Dukakis for president in 1988 kind of capped it off."

The pro-life issue was the clincher. Canady switched parties the next year.

In 1992, Canady ran for U.S Congress as a Republican, and won. When Republicans took control of the U.S. House in 1994, Canady was appointed chairman of the Constitution subcommittee.

Parallel to Canady’s political career was his growth in the faith.

"I was raised in a Christian home and influenced by the preaching of the Gospel from my earliest days, when I was on the ’cradle roll’ at our church," he says. "So at a very young age, I came to have faith in Christ."

Raised and baptized as a Southern Baptist, Canady began attending a Presbyterian church in his hometown 19 years ago. It was at Covenant Presbyterian that Canady met his best friend, Vince Strawbridge, Jr., who eventually introduced him to Jennifer Houghton, a church member and local elementary schoolteacher.

Canady and Houghton married in 1996. She now works in Canady’s Washington office. They attend Bible studies on Capitol Hill–Jennifer with other congressional spouses, the congressman with a small group of House colleagues, including Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., and Bob Inglis, R-S.C.

"My faith forms everything I do," Canady says. "My faith forms my views about policy issues, about what is right and wrong....My faith also forms the way I relate to people in the legislative process."

For example, Canady overcame great odds in getting Congress to pass the Lobby Disclosure Act in 1955. Public support for regulation of well-financed lobbyists was sky-high when Canady first introduced the bill, but his own Republican leadership cringed, hurling one killer amendment after another.

The unflappable Canady proceeded to build a coalition of two dozen congressmen–including such unlikely allies as openly homosexual Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.–and beat back every amendment. It was the first meaningful lobby reform to pass Congress in 49 years.

And now it’s time to protect religious liberty. Canady says such a bill will be modeled after the 1964 Civil Rights Act; anyone receiving federal funds would be required to accommodate an individual’s free exercise of religion.

One of Canady’s primary interests in drafting the legislation is to protect the work of Colson’s Prison Fellowship.

"I think that we need to make certain that religious ministries can continue in the prisons," he says.

Colson, for one, seconds the motion.

"I’m convinced God prepared Charles Canady for this assignment," he says, "and placed him in a position to shepherd this cause through Congress."

Reprinted by permission, Citizen. Jennifer Ferranti is a freelance writer in Fairfax, Virginia.