MILNER, Ga. -- Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee went head-to-head for evangelical votes this weekend, telling a megachurch congregation in Georgia that God favors the United States but warning that the nation is on a perilous spiritual path because of actions like the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
Huckabee, who enjoyed evangelical support on his way to winning eight states in his 2008 White House bid, called the ruling "radical" and "illegal."
"I want to serve notice that the Supreme Court is just the supreme of the court system that is one of the three equal branches of government," Huckabee told hundreds of members of Rock Springs Church in a rural area outside metro Atlanta. "It is not the supreme branch, and it most certainly is not the supreme being."
Cruz, the Texas senator, said a five-justice majority "ignored the text of the Constitution" and said the cascade of judicial and public support for same-sex marriage threatens religious liberty in America. He said he hopes the ruling "serves as a spark, to start a fire that becomes a raging inferno as the body of Christ stands up to defend the values that have built America."
Their appearance on Sunday at the megachurch about 50 miles south of downtown Atlanta is part of the early, concerted scramble for the conservative evangelicals who remain an important bloc of the GOP presidential electorate. Christian conservatives have long held considerable influence in Iowa, which hosts the first caucus of the primary season, and in South Carolina, home of the South's first primary a few weeks later.
Now, Georgia and several other Southern states get more frequent visits from presidential hopefuls ahead of the planned "SEC primary," named for the Southeastern Conference of college athletics. The March 1, 2016, vote falls after the traditional first four states and ahead of the usual "Super Tuesday" states.
Huckabee, whose 2008 wins included Iowa and Georgia, has called the Southern-dominated primary date "manna from heaven." But Cruz and others - Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson - are making hard runs for the same bloc of support.
The Sunday event was a belated Independence Day observance that also featured The Charlie Daniels Band and Jep Robertson, one of the members of the cable television "Duck Dynasty" family. For Cruz and Huckabee, it might as well have been a county fair in Iowa, with an added opportunity to speak openly and passionately in their preferred evangelical tones.
Cruz told the story of an Iowa couple he said were driven out of the wedding chapel business after denying their services to two men who wanted to get married. The case, Cruz said, "is emblematic of the persecution that religious liberty and believers across this country." He continued: "I will always, always, always stand and defend the religious liberty of every American."
Huckabee said the Independence Day observances were an opportunity to reject "the revisionists" who say of the American founders: "They really were not believers." The ordained Baptist minister argued: "There is simply no other explanation ... God had to bless America or we would not exist. The question is will God continue to bless America without our repentance."
Rev. Benny Tate, pastor of the 6,000-member Rock Springs congregation, joked about the attention. "Our zip code is E-I-E-I-O," he said, "and we've got two presidential candidates. How about that?" But the minister is also a serious player in Republican politics, with many Georgia politicians, and now national ones, courting his public approval, if not his explicit endorsement.
Tate told the assembly that Huckabee, as Arkansas governor, signed "a ban on partial-birth abortion," referring to the termination of late-term pregnancies. He hailed Cruz for "standing against the Democratic Party ... and even against the Republican Party."
Despite the emphasis on faith, Huckabee's loudest applause came when he lauded his "fair tax" proposal that he said "would allow us to, once and for all, abolish the IRS." Cruz, meanwhile, drew some of his most enthusiastic reactions when he declared, "I'm convinced 2016 will be a referendum on repealing Obamacare," President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
A few minutes earlier, the assembly passed offering plates for the church's clinics, which Tate said provide "free health care" to residents in dozens of surrounding counties.