Frist Set to Use Religious Stage on Judicial Issue
Published: April 15, 2005
ASHINGTON, April 14 - As the Senate heads toward a showdown over the rules governing judicial confirmations, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as "against people of faith" for blocking President Bush's nominees.
Fliers for the telecast, organized by the Family Research Council and scheduled to originate at a Kentucky megachurch the evening of April 24, call the day "Justice Sunday" and depict a young man holding a Bible in one hand and a gavel in the other. The flier does not name participants, but under the heading "the filibuster against people of faith," it reads: "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith."
Organizers say they hope to reach more than a million people by distributing the telecast to churches around the country, over the Internet and over Christian television and radio networks and stations.
Dr. Frist's spokesman said the senator's speech in the telecast would reflect his previous remarks on judicial appointments. In the past he has consistently balanced a determination "not to yield" on the president's nominees with appeals to the Democrats for compromise. He has distanced himself from the statements of others like the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, who have attacked the courts, saying they are too liberal, "run amok" or are hostile to Christianity.
The telecast, however, will put Dr. Frist in a very different context. Asked about Dr. Frist's participation in an event describing the filibuster "as against people of faith," his spokesman, Bob Stevenson, did not answer the question directly.
"Senator Frist is doing everything he can to ensure judicial nominees are treated fairly and that every senator has the opportunity to give the president their advice and consent through an up or down vote," Mr. Stevenson said, adding, "He has spoken to groups all across the nation to press that point, and as long as a minority of Democrats continue to block a vote, he will continue to do so."
Some of the nation's most influential evangelical Protestants are participating in the teleconference in Louisville, including Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Chuck Colson, the born-again Watergate figure and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries; and Dr. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The event is taking place as Democrats and Republicans alike are escalating their public relations campaigns in anticipation of an imminent confrontation. The Democratic minority has blocked confirmation of 10 of President Bush's judicial nominees by preventing Republicans from gaining the 60 votes needed to close debate, using the filibuster tactic often used by political minorities and most notoriously employed by opponents of civil rights.
Dr. Frist has threatened that the Republican majority might change the rules to require only a majority vote on nominees, and Democrats have vowed to bring Senate business to a standstill if he does.
On Thursday, one wavering Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona, told a television interviewer, Chris Matthews, that he would vote against the change.
"By the way, when Bill Clinton was president, we, effectively, in the Judiciary Committee blocked a number of his nominees," Mr. McCain said.
On Thursday the Judiciary Committee sent the nomination of Thomas B. Griffith for an appellate court post to the Senate floor. Democrats say they do not intend to block Mr. Griffith's nomination.
That cleared the way for the committee to approve several previously blocked judicial appointees in the next two weeks.
The telecast also signals an escalation of the campaign for the rule change by Christian conservatives who see the current court battle as the climax of a 30-year culture war, a chance to reverse decades of legal decisions about abortion, religion in public life, gay rights and marriage.
"As the liberal, anti-Christian dogma of the left has been repudiated in almost every recent election, the courts have become the last great bastion for liberalism," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and organizer of the telecast, wrote in a message on the group's Web site. "For years activist courts, aided by liberal interest groups like the A.C.L.U., have been quietly working under the veil of the judiciary, like thieves in the night, to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms."
Democrats accused Dr. Frist of exploiting religious faith for political ends by joining the telecast. "No party has a monopoly on faith, and for Senator Frist to participate in this kind of telecast just throws more oil on the partisan flames," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
But Mr. Perkins stood by the characterization of Democrats as hostile to faith. "What they have done is, they have targeted people for reasons of their faith or moral position," he said, referring to Democratic criticisms of nominees over their views of cases about abortion rights or public religious expressions.
"The issue of the judiciary is really something that has been veiled by this 'judicial mystique' so our folks don't really understand it, but they are beginning to connect the dots," Mr. Perkins said in an interview, reciting a string of court decisions about prayer or displays of religion.
"They were all brought about by the courts," he said.
Democrats, for their part, are already stepping up their efforts to link Dr. Frist and the rule change with conservatives statements about unaccountable judges hostile to faith.
On Thursday, Mr. Schumer released an open letter calling on Dr. Frist to denounce such attacks. "The last thing we need is inflammatory rhetoric which on its face encourages violence against judges," he wrote.