Frist Draws Criticism From Some Church Leaders
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
Published: April 22, 2005
WASHINGTON, April 21 - As the Senate battle over judicial confirmations became increasingly entwined with religious themes, officials of several major Protestant denominations on Thursday accused the Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist, of violating the principles of his own Presbyterian church and urged him to drop out of a Sunday telecast that depicts Democrats as "against people of faith."
Dr. Frist's participation has rekindled a debate over the role of religion in public life that may be complicating his efforts to overcome the Democrats' use of the filibuster, a parliamentary tactic used by Congressional minorities, to block President Bush's judicial nominees.
Dr. Frist has threatened to change the Senate rules to eliminate judicial filibusters, and in response Democrats have threatened a virtual shutdown of the Senate. A confrontation had been expected as early as next week, but it now appears that the showdown may be delayed.
Religious groups, including the National Council of Churches and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, plan to conduct a conference call with journalists on Friday to criticize Senator Frist's participation in the telecast. The program is sponsored by Christian conservative organizations that want to build support for Dr. Frist's filibuster proposal.
Among those scheduled to speak in the conference call is the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a top official of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., in which Dr. Frist is an active member.
"One of the hallmarks of our denomination is that we are an ecumenical church," Mr. Kirkpatrick said in an interview on Thursday. He also said, "Elected officials should not be portraying public policies as being for or against people of faith."
A spokesman for Dr. Frist said his remarks, which are not yet available, would be consistent with previous statements about fair treatment for judicial nominees. "I would hope that he would read Dr. Frist's remarks," the spokesman, Bob Stevenson, said of Mr. Kirkpatrick.
Mr. Stevenson added that the timing of the confrontation on filibusters was not related to the criticisms that have been raised about the telecast, saying Dr. Frist still planned to propose a compromise to the Democrats.
Still, the Senate moved closer to a showdown on Thursday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee, voting along party lines, approved two nominees, Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla R. Owen, who were blocked by a filibuster in the last Congress and are expected to be blocked again. Republican strategists consider the nominees - two women, one of whom is black - favorable choices for a filibuster fight.
There were signs, though, that Dr. Frist was planning to postpone the confrontation for at least another two weeks, when the Senate returns from a spring recess.
Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said Dr. Frist had told him he would like to take up a transportation measure next week, an indication that he did not expect a filibuster fight before the Congressional recess. Polls, meanwhile, suggest a lack of public support for ending the filibuster. A recent survey conducted for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that 50 percent of those polled believed that the Senate should retain the filibusters for judicial nominations, while 40 percent were against and 10 percent undecided.
The theme of the telecast, which is called Justice Sunday and will be broadcast to churches and Christian radio and television networks, is "The Filibuster Against People of Faith." Its sponsors argue that by blocking judicial nominees who oppose abortion rights on religious and moral grounds, Democrats are effectively discriminating against those nominees....
...Christian conservatives have also accused Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, a Roman Catholic, of tolerating anti-Catholicism from his fellow Democrats who oppose nominees who follow the church's teachings on abortions.
On Thursday, Mr. Salazar responded by issuing a statement taking to task one of the telecast's speakers, Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, for deprecating the Catholic faith. It quoted Mr. Mohler as saying "the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel" and "the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office."...
...Dr. Frist's overtures to Christian conservatives have drawn the ire of the more liberal hierarchies of other religious groups, including the officials of his own denomination. Dr. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Democratic congressman, said he had sought to include Mr. Kirkpatrick, of the Presbyterian Church, in the conference call both because Dr. Frist is Presbyterian and because of the church's emphasis on ecumenicalism.
"To say that some group of Christians has a monopoly on the ear of God is especially an outrage to Presbyterians," Mr. Edgar said.
Mr. Kirkpatrick said Dr. Frist's participation in the telecast undermined "the historical commitment in our nation and our church to an understanding of the First Amendment that elected officials should not be portraying public policies as being for or against people of faith."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and organizer of the telecast, said those who were offended did not have to watch the telecast.
"There are millions of other Americans who see a connection between the filibuster and judicial activism," Mr. Perkins said. "And when we talk about judicial activism, we are talking about issues that people faith care about deeply."