The Family Research Council, a Christian conservative advocacy group, has organized an April 24 telecast, "Justice Sunday," which includes prominent conservative Christians speaking by simulcast to churches, Web sites and Christian broadcast networks. Under the heading "The filibuster against people of faith," a flier for the telecast reads, "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith."
Religious advocacy groups have as much right to engage in political speech as anyone else, and religious people have plenty of reason to be concerned about who gets onto the courts and who is kept off. Here, they profess concern that the filibuster is being used to discriminate based on religious beliefs.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is contributing a 4-minute videotape to the program. Is it wrong for a politician to associate with religious leaders who are advocating a political position? I can see worrying that a particular group has a lot of political influence, but that is ordinary politics, not a reason to silence people who are speaking out on matters of public concern and who identify with or are motivated by a particular religion. And Frist agrees with them in opposing filibustering judicial nominees. He's not obligated to shun them because of their religious affiliation.
So what is the response from Democrats?
"Our debate over the rules of the Senate and the use of the filibuster has nothing to do with whether one is religious or not," Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said at a news conference with Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader from Nevada. "I cannot imagine that God - with everything he has or she has to worry about - is going to take the time to debate the filibuster in heaven."
The first sentence of that statement is simple disagreement about the basis for opposing the nominees, and of course, one would expect people like Durbin to say they are not discriminating on a religious ground. That second sentence subtracts from the credibility of the denial, however, because it's little more than a mockery of religion.
Democrats seized on Dr. Frist's participation in an effort to portray Republicans as intolerant extremists. "In America, we are in a democracy, not a theocracy," Mr. Reid said, urging Dr. Frist to back out of the event. "God does not take part in partisan politics."
I don't see the sense of this statement. Religious people fighting for a cause they believe in do not make the government a theocracy. Many prominent and highly respected political activists -- notably Martin Luther King, Jr. -- have operated from a religious foundation. It's nothing new, and it doesn't deserve to be demonized. There's a tone of mockery toward religion in what Durbin and Reid are saying, as they twist the Council's political activity into the idea that God is somehow debating about or participating in partisan politics. I'm sure that draws easy laughs and gasps from people who scoff at religion, but it's quite unhelpful.
There's an important and serious argument going on now about who should be on the federal courts. The Senate Democrats are using the filibuster to block a small number of the nominees, ones they consider way too deeply embedded in social conservatism and thus at odds with the moral values they represent. The socially conservative Christians want these people on the courts because they want their moral values expressed through courts. It's a very important stand-off, but making it all about religion is a distraction. A person's fundamental moral beliefs play a role in his or her decisionmaking, even if that person is a judge and is trying mightily to follow orthodox interpretive methodology. So the Senators are right to fight about the nominees the way they do, and they will have to work out this issue of majority rule and the filibuster device. But these recent comments by Durbin and Reid are offensive, inflammatory, and manipulative.
In case you're thinking I just lean Republican, here are my recent posts critical of Republicans in the current fight over the judiciary:
DeLay backs down a bit about judges.
Congress and the judiciary -- with a response from Justice Kennedy.
More railing about judges.
The return of a reasonable tone?
The GOP and the judiciary.
UPDATE: Ramesh Ponnuru at The Corner links to this post and characterizes me as endorsing the FRC's contention that the filibuster is being used to block nominees "because they are people of faith and moral conviction." Hmmm... I don't mean to accuse of Senate Democrats of simple discrimination based on religion. I think that's how the Democrats characterize the FRC attack. I think the Democrats are opposing strong social conservatives, and I understand why they do. I don't even think it's wrong for them to do so, but I see why the FRC is pushing back the way they are. I'm not a social conservative myself, and I don't know enough about the individual nominees to have a position, but if I were a Senator, I'd vote against nominees that I thought they were deeply wedded to very conservative morality if I were not convinced that they make a special effort to exclude their personal morality from their judicial decisions.