Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's decision to appear in a national telecast with prominent Christian conservatives -- who are calling for new Senate rules to seat federal judges and are assailing "the liberal, anti-Christian dogma of the left" -- drew fire yesterday from Democratic leaders.
The April 24 "Justice Sunday" telecast is sponsored by the Family Research Council. Its president, Tony Perkins, said in a letter to supporters: "We must stop this unprecedented filibuster of people of faith."
He was referring to Senate Democrats' use of delaying tactics that have blocked confirmation votes for 10 of President Bush's most conservative appellate court nominees. Frist (R-Tenn.) is threatening to change the Senate's long-standing rules in order to ban judicial filibusters, a move that Democrats and their allies virulently oppose.
Several Democratic senators criticized Perkins's comments and Frist's planned participation, which were first reported in yesterday's editions of the New York Times.
"I am disappointed that in an attempt to hide what the debate is really about, Senator Frist would exploit religion like this," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said. "Participating in something designed to incite divisiveness and encourage contention is unacceptable. I would hope that Senator Frist will rise above something so beyond the pale."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said he hopes Frist "will decide not to participate in this blatant assault on the fundamental principle of separation of church and state." Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged Frist "to remove himself from an extremist teleconference . . . to bash judges."
Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson issued a statement citing an Oct. 11 Washington Post story that said Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) -- then the Democratic presidential nominee -- "used a Baptist pulpit [in Florida] to speak of eternal life and denounce President Bush."
"Senate Democrats said nothing in response," Stevenson said. To criticize Frist "for agreeing to deliver a similar address pressing for fair treatment of the president's judicial nominees" is "a clear double standard."
The April 24 simulcast, which will be available to churches and groups nationwide, will originate from Highview Baptist Church in Louisville. Participants are to include Perkins, Frist, evangelical leader James C. Dobson and Charles W. Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries. A flier promoting the program says, "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith."
In his letter promoting the event, Perkins said, "For years activist courts, aided by liberal interest groups like the ACLU, 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."
The filibustered nominees "are being blocked because they are people of faith and moral conviction," he said. "These are people whose only offense is to say that abortion is wrong or that marriage should be between one man and one woman."
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said Frist's participation "is more than troubling. It is disingenuous, dangerous and demagogic." He said the Senate leader "must not give legitimacy to those who claim they hold a monopoly on faith."
Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.