Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist defended removing Democrats’ power to filibuster against judges nominated by President Bush in a videotaped message to a rally labeled “Justice Sunday” in a Kentucky Baptist church.
Democrats earlier criticized Frist, a Republican from Tennessee and potential presidential candidate in 2008, for lending credibility to what they called a radical group.
“I don’t think it’s radical to ask senators to vote,” Frist said, quoted in the Associated Press. “I don’t think it’s radical to expect senators to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities.”
But Frist distanced himself from more strident views expressed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who has said “activist” judges should be impeached.
“Our judiciary must be independent, impartial and fair,” Frist said. “When we think judicial decisions are outside mainstream American values, we will say so. But we must also be clear that the balance of power among all three branches requires respect—not retaliation. I won’t go along with that.”
The broadcast from Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., went out on satellite and Webcast to a potential audience of 61 million homes in 44 states, said the Family Research Council, sponsor of the event.
Frist didn’t mention religion in his speech, delivered to a gathering billed as declaring the Senate filibuster “against people of faith.”
That premise met opposition in the form of two rallies protesting the Highview event and a Friday press conference featuring Baptist speakers urging their sister church to call the rally off.
“Despite the fact that no one has yet to find reference to the filibuster in the Bible, Republicans and their religious allies are saying God is on their side,” Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine, told about 600 people at Central Presbyterian Church near downtown Louisville, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
In a Friday press conference, a Louisville Baptist minister deplored “the use of a Baptist church, and the name of Christianity, for what appears to be thinly veiled political rally with a takeover agenda for the soul of America.”
“We see ‘Justice Sunday’ as part of a larger effort to link church and state in ways not seen in America since the Puritans were hanging Quakers on Boston Commons and exiling Baptists to Rhode Island,” said Joseph Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville.
Louisville resident Reba Cobb, a former executive with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said the claim by organizers of the Highview event that the filibuster is against people of faith “is not based on fact.”
“No one faith or political party holds a monopoly on morality in this country,” Cobb said. “There are people of faith on differing sides of countless policy issues. Characterizations of public policy issues as the faithful versus the faithless are divisive, misleading and, perhaps worst of all, exploit religion for political purposes.”
Another speaker at the rally at Highview, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler, said the Constitution should be interpreted literally, just like the Bible. Noting that the Supreme Court had struck down sodomy laws as unconstitutional, Mohler asked, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, “Does anyone believe the framers believed in a constitutional right to sodomy?”
“Too often, judges have constrained our religious liberty,” Mohler was quoted as saying in the Lexington Herald-Leader. “This pattern of discrimination against people who have deeply held convictions for human life and the institution of marriage must come to an end.”
The filibuster is a 200-year-old tradition in the Senate. It allows 41 of 100 senators to hold unlimited debate on a subject by requiring 60 votes to end the debate and hold the vote.
Quoting CBS News, the Nashville Tennessean reported that in 2000 Frist participated in a filibuster to try to prevent a vote on a judge nominated by President Clinton. The effort failed and the judge was confirmed.
Since Bush’s election, 205 of his 215 judicial nominees—95 percent—have been confirmed by the Senate. Democrats opposing the blocked nominees said they did so because of extremist positions and judicial philosophies, not their religious beliefs. Some Democratic senators have said they would be willing to compromise by letting some of Bush’s judges go through, but not the most objectionable.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.