Apr 232005

I was saddened this week to learn that, by definition of U.S. Senator (and Senate Majority Leader) Dr. Bill?(I’ll diagnose you via videotape for a nominal contribution….ahhhh…I mean fee) Frist, and the Family Research Council, I am no longer a person of faith. That may be true. My lifelong allegience to Christianity is certainly being challenged by the Krazy Kristian Kooks, and if being a person of faith means relinquishing my rights and freedoms to the Kooks…then I withdraw my membership.

The Senate has already confirmed more than 200 of President Bush’s judicial picks. The battle is heating up, however, over a handful of the most radical, most extreme nominations. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, looking for political gain, has decided on a strategy to push these nominations through: Smudge the line between church and state, twist the issue by playing the religious card and use "piety for profit." Radical right-wing evangelical leaders, in the meantime, are using Sen. Frist right back to push their agenda to bypass the federal system of checks and balances to exert more ideological control over judges. (Want to know more about the judicial battles? On Monday, American Progress is hosting an event to discuss the role of the filibuster in protecting minority rights and providing an effective counterweight to presidential power, featuring: Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), Prof. Michael Gerhardt (William & Mary School of Law), and Norman Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute), with moderator John Podesta.

This past March, two radical right-wing evangelical leaders ? Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and James Dobson of Focus on the Family ? met privately with supporters at a conference in Washington. The Los Angeles Times obtained an explosive audio recording of that meeting in which the two leaders laid out their strategy to stack the courts, bypass the Constitution and destroy the system of checks and balances in the federal government. As Perkins said, "There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to take a black robe off the bench." Their idea? Perkins and Dobson want to skip the constitutional process of impeachment and remove judges who don’t toe their ultra-right partisan line using a back door method: stripping funding from their courts to hamstring their work until they are forced out. Dobson spelled it out, saying, "Very few people know this, that the Congress can simply disenfranchise a court. They don’t have to fire anybody or impeach them or go through battle. All they have to do is say the 9th Circuit doesn’t exist anymore and it’s gone."

Perkins agreed cutting off funding is a great way to turn judges into puppets, saying instead of going through the deliberative process of impeachment, "just take away the bench, all of his staff, and he’s just sitting out there with nothing to do." (Unless it’s a judge who can work without a staff, of course. No wonder Tom DeLay finds it so "outrageous" that Justice Kennedy does his own research on the Internet.)

The plan the radical right-wing evangelical leaders are hatching isn’t falling on deaf ears. Just after this session, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay showed he was on board, warning ominously, "We set up the courts. We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse."

Luckily, many conservatives in Congress aren’t so willing to go along with the plot. Perkins and Dobson went on the attack, accusing many of them of being "squishy" or "weak." Specifically targeted were: Sens. Olympia Snow (R-ME), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE). Perkins and Dobson groused that Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and George Allen (R-VA) needed pushing, too. Dobson obviously felt he wasn’t getting the influence he was paying for, ominously saying, "Sometimes it’s just amazing to me that they seem to forget how they got here."

Frist is scheduled to appear in a telecast Sunday (sponsored by the far-right Family Research Council), beaming his accusation that opponents of President Bush’s judicial nominees are "against people of faith" into churches and homes across the country. Melissa Rogers, a visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School charges, "Dr. Frist is wrong to seek political advantage through this event, and his error is compounded by his tacit approval of these illegitimate claims of persecution and the smearing of others as ‘anti-religious’ simply because they differ on certain political and legal issues." His fellow senators also disagree with his participation: Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) told CNN, "When we talk religion and government, neither should become an instrument for the other. And I see drifting here in different directions that are, I don’t think, healthy for our country." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) concurred, calling Frist’s planned speech "a very dangerous precedent. That goes to a level where the Senate has never gone before. It is a very unhealthy turn of events." But, as the St. Petersburg Times wrote: Frist Shows No Shame.

Many true religious leaders are offended at Frist’s attempt to score political points by hijacking faith. The National Council of Churches has criticized his participation in the so-called "Justice Sunday" telecast; so has the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Even the top official of the Presbyterian Church USA (of which Frist is an "active member"), Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, has come out against Frist’s manipulation of religion, saying, "Elected officials should not be portraying public policies as being for or against people of faith."

The right wing of the Senate is edging closer to activating the nuclear option by possibly forcing a filibuster. It could happen sooner rather than later, as two of President Bush’s most extremist, radical nominees just cleared committee: Judges Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown. Owen has a long record of extremist decisions and, as then-Texas Supreme Court Justice Alberto Gonzales put it, unconscionable acts "of judicial activism." Brown, who was characterized by the New York Times as waging a "war on mainstream legal values that most Americans hold dear," also has a record of ideological extremism. For examp
le, she characterized seniors on Social Security as people who "blithely cannibalize their grandchildren." As Sen. Dianne Feinstein put it, "In my days on this committee, I have never seen a nominee who expresses such extreme views, views that are clearly out of the mainstream of American thought." (For more on Brown, check out this from ThinkProgress.)

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