Battle Over Benches Spills Across Pews

Times Staff Writer

Partisan battles over the courts moved Sunday from the halls of Congress to the pews and pulpits of the nation’s churches -- with evangelical leaders portraying opponents of conservative judges as enemies of faith and liberals decrying a “religious war” being waged against them.

In highly anticipated remarks aired as part of a 90-minute simulcast to conservative churches -- which sponsors said would reach more than 60 million people -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist shied away from the fiery oratory offered by evangelical leaders.

But the Tennessee Republican threatened again to change Senate rules to curb the Democrats’ ability to block votes on 10 of President Bush’s court nominees. The move is so controversial that some refer to it as the “nuclear option.”

And activists on both sides declared Sunday’s event, “Justice Sunday: Stop the Filibuster Against People of Faith,” a watershed moment in an increasingly emotional conflict that is as much about the mixing of God and government as it is about who can serve on the federal bench.

“Only in the United States Senate could it be considered a devastating option to allow a vote,” Frist said in a six-minute speech taped Friday. “Most places call that democracy.”


The simulcast was sponsored by the lobbying arms of the socially conservative advocacy groups Family Research Council and Focus on the Family. It originated from the sanctuary of the 6,000-member Highview Baptist Church on Louisville’s fast-growing east side, an example of the evangelical mega-churches that have become central to Republican efforts to expand the party’s base by courting Christians and other deeply religious voters.

The event marked the most dramatic show of force by evangelical leaders since the 2004 elections, when religious conservatives helped fuel Bush’s reelection and expand the GOP majority in Congress.

Last month, the death of Terri Schiavo -- the brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed after a lengthy court battle despite efforts by Bush and the Republican-led Congress -- put the spotlight on the judiciary.

Evangelical leaders, angered by rulings on abortion and gay marriage as well as the Schiavo case, have set their sights on transforming courts they view as stacked against religion. They also are seeking to weaken what they call the “secular left,” which they say targets people with religious beliefs from reaching the bench.

That was the dominant theme Sunday night, as some of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders spoke from a church pulpit adorned with 4-foot-tall portraits of five judicial nominees being blocked by Democratic senators.

“Just because we believe the in the Bible as a guidepost for life does not disqualify us from participating in our government,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “As American citizens, we should not have to choose between believing what is in this book and serving the public.”

One of the stars of the evening was Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi, whose nomination to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was blocked by Democrats after it was revealed that he secretly had pressed prosecutors to allow a lesser sentence for a white man who led a cross-burning at a black couple’s home. Circumventing the confirmation process, Bush appointed Pickering to the bench during a congressional recess.

In a videotape shown during the event, Pickering, who also appeared in person, defended his civil rights record. He noted that he had testified against a Ku Klux Klan member at the height of the civil rights movement, and had sent his own children to newly integrated schools.

“The real reason they were opposing me was abortion,” Pickering said in the video. Asked by Perkins if a Christian could realistically aspire to the bench, Pickering concluded: “If Christians don’t stand up and don’t participate, I cringe about the future.”

James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, on Sunday did not spare lawmakers he called “squishy Republicans.” Images of Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were placed on screens, along with their office numbers.

The Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, but several GOP members have said they were wary of veering from the Senate tradition of filibusters. Frist has proposed changing the rules to end debate over judicial nominees by a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the 60 now needed to avoid a filibuster.

“Republicans are really good at trembling,” Dobson told members of the audience. “Get a hold of them and tell them that you care and you will remember how you vote.”

Across town, critics of Justice Sunday gathered at a Presbyterian church to assail what they said was an inappropriate infusion of religion into the debate over judges.

Jim Wallis, a liberal evangelical who edits the magazine Sojourners, said that the religious conservatives’ stance favoring one party and one position on judges “borders on idolatry.”

“When they say that people who disagree with their views and their strategy are not people of faith, they’ve crossed a line,” Wallis said. “When they use faith as a weapon, as a wedge, it feels like instigation of a religious war. And the creation of a Republican theocracy.”

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the activist group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Justice Sunday marked a turning point. “This is the closest thing to a civil war within the religious community that I’ve seen in the past 25 years,” Lynn said.

Indeed, inside the semi-circle sanctuary at Highview Baptist Church, the rhetoric was fiery.

William Donahue, president of the Catholic League, said he had more in common ideologically with evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews than with fellow Catholics such as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who support abortion rights.

“We will not be told to shut up and give it over to the secular left,” Donahue said. “They claim to be the high priests of tolerance, and yet they practice intolerance against us.”

Dobson went after the Supreme Court on issues such as prayer in school, abortion and anti-sodomy laws. The justices, he said, were “unelected and unaccountable and arrogant and imperious and determined to redesign the culture according to their own biases and values -- and they’re out of control.”

Frist, who has been criticized by Democrats for using the battle over judgeships to curry favor with the GOP base for a potential 2008 presidential bid, took a more moderate approach in his taped remarks.

“When we think judicial decisions are outside mainstream American values ... we will say so,” he said. “But we must also be clear that the balance of power among all three branches [of government] requires respect.”

Appearing Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition,” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that fellow Republicans “ought not to vote for the nuclear option as a matter of party loyalty, and the Democrats ought not to be voting in lock step on filibusters as a matter of party loyalty.”

He suggested that it was time that lawmakers “voted our consciences” on judicial nominations.

Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Washington contributed to this report.