WASHINGTON (ABP) — The Senate's top-ranking Republican and conservative Christian leaders will join forces in an April 24 nationwide telecast to accuse Democrats of barring “people of faith” from becoming federal judges.
The charge prompted cries of “foul” from Democrats and moderate religious leaders.
The “Justice Sunday” broadcast, which will originate at a Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Ky., will feature Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler and a host of conservative religious leaders. It is aimed at pumping up support for Frist's attempt to end Senate Democrats' ability to use a procedural move — known as the filibuster — to block some of President Bush's nominees to federal judgeships.
“Our goal is to reach as many people as possible and to engage values voters in the all-important issue of reining in our out-of-control courts and putting a halt to the useof filibusters against people of faith,” said Tony Perkins, head of the Washington-based Family Research Council, in an April 15 press release announcing the event. Perkins' group is sponsoring the telecast.
While the Senate has approved the vast majority of Bush's nominees to federal judgeships since the beginning of his term in 2001, Democrats have blocked about 10 nominees they consider extremists on some legal or social issues.
Senate rules currently require 60 votes to cut off debate and move to a vote on any issue. Therefore, the minority party can halt movement on legislation if they can muster 40 or more votes against closing debate, known as “cloture.”
Claiming that “activist courts aided by liberal interest groups” have long been working “to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms,” Perkins said his group organized the telecast to help put more conservative judges on federal courts.
“We now have a president who is committed to nominate judicial candidates who are not activists but strict constructionists — judges who will simply interpret the Constitution as it was written,” Perkins said. “We now have a majority in the U.S. Senate that will confirm these nominees. However, a radical minority has launched an unprecedented filibuster against these outstanding men and women.
He concluded: “We must stop this unprecedented filibuster of people of faith.”
Promotional materials for the event have used even more loaded language. An FRC-produced flier features a photo of a young man, holding a gavel in one hand and a Bible in the other. A caption above it reads, “He should not have to choose.”
“The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith,” the flier said, recalling the Senate filibuster that temporarily blocked civil-rights bills in the 1960s, led by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
Faith leaders outside the Religious Right called such claims “shameful.”
“It is quite proper for people of faith to weigh in on the policy decisions of the day, including debates over parliamentary procedures like the filibuster rule in the Senate,” said Brent Walker, executive director of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. “But it is a shameful abuse of religion to suggest that God has taken up sides in the debate. There are people of faith on both sides; neither has God in their hip pocket on this issue.”
He continued, “Whatever our differences on the filibuster rule or on the confirmation of judicial nominees, we should all recognize that the opinions offered are not inspired by anti-religious bias.”
David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, likewise called Frist's endorsement of such rhetoric by his participation in the conference “shameful.”
The telecast, which will originate from Louisville's Highview Baptist Church, will take place on the second night of the Passover holiday, “when Jews around the world gather together to celebrate our religious freedom,” Saperstein said April 15.
“And it is in very large part because of exactly such freedom that we and our neighbors here have built a nation uniquely welcoming to people of faith — of all faiths,” Saperstein continued in a statement. “We believe Sen. Frist knows these things as well. His association with the scheduled telecast is, in a word, shameful.”
Senate Democrats also lambasted Frist for his role in the telecast. In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a Mormon, said Frist and other Republicans had “crossed a line…. This is a democracy, not a theocracy. We are people of faith, and in many ways are doing God's work. But we represent all Americans, regardless of religion.”
He continued, “Participating in something designed to incite divisiveness and encourage contention is unacceptable. I would hope that Sen. Frist will rise above something so beyond the pale.”
Calls from Associated Baptist Press to spokespeople for the Family Research Council and Mohler requesting comment were not returned by press time for this story.
Nick Smith, a Frist spokesperson, refused to answer a reporter's questions about the rhetoric surrounding the conference. “What we're talking about is an unprecedented act over 200 years — the Senate has always provided the president's judicial nominations with an up-or-down vote,” Smith said. “This is an issue that we feel is an issue of the president's judicial nominees being denied an up-or-down vote here.”
However, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has noted that Republicans — who were in control of the Senate then — denied many of President Clinton's judicial nominees an up-or-down vote by stalling their nominations in committee. McCain is one of two Republican senators who have stated publicly they do not support Frist's plan to do away with the filibuster.
In comments published in the New York Times, Frist spokesperson Bob Stevenson said there is no difference between Frist's participation in the conference and religious-themed rhetoric that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) used to denounce President Bush's policies during the 2004 election.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee noted that, while Democrats are currently filibustering 10 of Bush's nominees to the federal bench, the Senate has confirmed 205.
Tracy Schmaler, press secretary for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said the committee customarily does not ask judicial nominees their religious affiliation but many list affiliations in the biographical information they provide to the committee.
For instance, the Senate unanimously approved former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Duane Benton to a seat on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year. Benton, a pro-life Republican, is an active member of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.
For all the furor over judicial nominees, a recent study by the Los Angeles Times shows a large majority of judges currently sitting on federal appeals courts were appointed by Republican presidents. Of 162 active judges on those panels, 94 of them (58 percent) were appointed by Republican presidents.