Working in close alliance with Religious Right groups, Republican Party leaders in the Senate continue to move closer to a high-profile confrontation with Democrats over the issue of federal judges.
The Religious Right, led primarily by James Dobson of Focus on the Family, is furious that Democrats have invoked filibuster rules to block a handful of federal judicial nominees put forth by President George W. Bush. Although 205 Bush judges have been approved since 2001, Democrats are opposing seven they say are too extreme.
Current Senate rules require 60 votes to end a filibuster. Religious Right groups want Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to schedule a vote to change that rule so that 51 votes would end a filibuster.
Dobson and his allies seem determined to force the confrontation. On April 24 they hosted a “Justice Sunday” rally at a Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Ky. During the event, which was broadcast to conservative churches all over America, speakers insisted that Democratic opposition to the Bush judges is a form of religious bigotry.
The event at Highview Baptist Church was officially sponsored by the Dobson-affiliated Family Research Council. Speakers included Dobson and FRC President Tony Perkins.
During his remarks, Dobson called the Supreme Court “unelected and unaccountable” and “out of control.” He added, “For 43 years, the Supreme Court has been on a campaign to limit religious freedom. It’s all on the line. It’s time to stop the filibuster.”
Frist, in videotaped remarks, called for an up-and-down vote on Bush judicial nominees. While working closely with the far right, Frist took pains to try to maintain his moderate conservative image. He distanced himself from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has called on Congress to explore ways to penalize judges who issue rulings that displease conservatives.
“When we think judicial decisions are outside mainstream American values, we will say so,” Frist said. “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.”
Other speakers used more incendiary language.
“We will not be told to shut up and give it over to the secular left,” said William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “They claim to be the high priests of tolerance, and yet they practice intolerance against us.”
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, made clear the sectarian character of the event.
“We are not asking for persons to merely be moral,” Mohler said. “We want them to be believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Justice Sunday generated a significant amount of controversy. Several national organizations called on Frist to drop out, and 17 Baptist pastors in the Louisville area issued a call for Highview Baptist to cancel the event.
“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 the Rev. Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church.
Phelps went on to say, “Churches are for the worship of God and the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Convention halls are for political rallies and party wrangling. To confuse the two is to violate the First Amendment that 18th-century Baptists fought to include in our nation’s Constitution.”
The Rev. Kevin Ezell, senior pastor of Highview Baptist, ignored the advice and accused Phelps of being a publicity hound.
“The biggest story here is that he wants to be on TV, he wants to be in the paper,” Ezell said. “He needs to spend more time reaching people than criticizing others.”
After the event, Dobson wasted no time launching a new pressure campaign aimed at wavering senators. He openly threatened the reelection of Democratic senators who represent conservative states and began targeting some Republicans as well.
During Justice Sunday, Dobson insisted that viewers call “squishy Republicans” and demand they support the filibuster rule change. After the event, Dobson’s Focus on the Family began running newspaper and radio ads criticizing nine Republican senators who are on the fence about the change.
Some targeted senators did not appreciate the pressure. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) lashed out at FOF in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News.
“I am not squishy,” Murkowski said. “This whole deal with Focus on the Family has gotten me mad. They’re not going to put me in a corner this way.”
Murkowski’s colleague, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), agreed. Stevens said he supports changing the filibuster rules but called on FOF to let up.
“[T]his is a terrible tactic that is being used against her,” Stevens said. “Every senator has a right to make up his or her mind without such extreme pressure.”
Dobson also targeted freshman Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat. Dobson claims Salazar opposed filibusters during the campaign but has now switched sides. The rhetoric grew heated after members of a Denver church organized a protest at a Dairy Queen owned by Salazar’s wife.
Salazar used the term “Antichrist” to describe Dobson but immediately realized he had stepped over the line and issued a public apology. He said he used the phrase in frustration “after being relentlessly attacked in telephone calls, e-mails, newspapers and radio stations all across Colorado, having my faith questioned and having my wife’s business picketed as part of these attacks.”
Dobson also seems to have failed to win over Bush. During an April 28 press conference, Bush was asked if believes that Democrats are blocking some of his judicial nominees because of the nominees’ religious beliefs. Bush said no.
“I think people are opposing my nominees because they don’t like the judicial philosophy of the people I’ve nominated,” Bush said.
Meanwhile, Religious Right groups are getting antsy over the lack of action in the Senate. The Hill newspaper reported May 12 that First had to convene a conference call with 30 conservative leaders to explain why the filibuster showdown had been delayed.
Participants included Dobson, Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Convention and representatives from the American Center for Law and Justice as well as Concerned Women for America.
The Hill reported that First’s staff took unprecedented measures to keep the call private, reporting, “The call was considered sensitive enough that Frist’s staff used a scrambling device to prevent it from being recorded by participants.”