Frist speaks to Christian anti-filibuster rally
Other religious leaders call rally a false union of faith, politics
Frist rallies religious conservatives behind an anti-filibuster bill.
(CNN) -- Conservative Christian leaders used a nationally televised rally Sunday night to urge an end to Democratic filibusters against several of President Bush's nominees for federal judgeships.
In the rally, sponsored by the Family Research Council, one of the leaders called the congressional tactic of delaying debate, or blocking legislation, "judicial tyranny to people of faith."
"The future of democracy and ordered liberty actually depends on the outcome of this struggle," Focus on the Family founder James Dobson told the crowd at the "Justice Sunday" rally at a church in Louisville, Kentucky.
A prominent target for criticism was Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Democrats have used the filibuster threat to block 10 of President Bush's 205 picks for district and appellate court positions -- or 5 percent. They have objected to the nominees in question as being too conservative.
The Family Research Council is a conservative Christian organization that attempts to "shape public debate and formulate public policy that values human life and upholds the institutions of marriage and the family," according to a statement on its Web site.
Among those who spoke to the rally was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. In videotaped remarks, he told supporters he was willing to use the Republican majority to change Senate rules to prevent filibusters of judicial nominees.
"My Democratic counterpart, Senator Reid, calls me a radical Republican," said Frist, a Tennessee Republican and possible presidential candidate in 2008. "I don't think it's radical to ask senators to vote. I don't think it's radical to expect senators to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities. I don't think it's radical to restore precedents that worked so well for 214 years."
According to the U.S. Senate's Web site, the term filibuster is derived from the Dutch word meaning "pirate," and it's applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent action on a bill.
A three-fifths vote in the Senate -- 60 -- is needed to end a filibuster. But if the filibuster is eliminated, only 51 votes would be needed to confirm a judicial nominee.
Republicans hold 55 seats and Democrats 44, with one independent.
Opposition to 'Justice Sunday'
FRC President Tony Perkins said Democrats were using filibusters to exclude religious believers from the bench. Holding up a Bible, he told the audience, "What we are saying tonight is that as American citizens, we should not have to choose between believing what is in this book and serving the public."
And Dobson, whose commentaries are carried on about 3,500 U.S. radio stations, called the filibusters "unconstitutional" and "inappropriate." He said Bush's re-election in November means he gets to pick who sits on the courts.
"We sent a message to Washington that there was a concern over the judiciary," he said. "It was talked about often during the campaign. And yet now, a minority of members of the Senate -- the Democrats, essentially, and about six or eight very squishy Republicans -- are determined to prevent that influence from being felt on the court."
Frist's participation in the event drew fire from Democrats and hundreds of religious leaders, who accused Christian conservatives of raising unsubstantiated allegations of religious persecution.
Four hundred thirty religious leaders from across the country signed a letter to protest Sunday's rally. And the FRC rally prompted opposition rallies, including one in Louisville.
"What we detect instead is the work of a political organization using Christian language to exploit Americans' desire to preserve religious values by framing their political strategy in terms of religious liberty," wrote the Rev. Joe Phelps of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, which held the opposition rally. "This is deceptive, manipulative, and false."
Viewers of the program -- subtitled "Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith" -- were urged to call senators like Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut to support Frist and other Republicans in the standoff.
Democrats say they have filibustered or threatened the move against only those judges whose records suggest they are too far to the right. Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former chairman of the panel, said some have written some "pretty radical stuff."
Although decisions on abortion rights and same-sex marriage have drawn the most attention, he said, Democrats opposed six nominees because of their views on property rights.
"If you read what they've written and you read what others have written about those issues, you're talking about stopping the ability of county zoning facilities to be able to tell you you can't build a factory in the middle of a neighborhood unless you compensate the factory," the Delaware senator said on ABC's "This Week."
Frist has argued that no judicial nominee with majority support has ever been held up by a filibuster. Biden said that was "simply not true," citing Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, who was blocked from rising to chief justice in 1969, and subsequently quit the court.
Other Democrats noted that Republicans filibustered one of former President Bill Clinton's judicial nominees, and used different tactics to block numerous other Clinton picks.
The prospect of eliminating filibusters on judicial nominations has been dubbed the "nuclear option." Republicans have taken to calling it the "constitutional option," arguing that the Constitution requires that nominees receive an up-or-down vote.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Friday that he would cast a tie-breaking vote on the issue if needed, and Democrats say they would use procedural tactics to slow Senate business to a crawl if Republicans bring the matter to a head.
But while Frist and Reid have sparred publicly over the prospect of changing Senate rules, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said the two leaders were still trying to negotiate a settlement to the dispute and get senators to move on some pending nominations.
"My Republican colleagues ought not to vote for the nuclear option as a matter of party loyalty, and the Democrats ought not to be voting in lockstep on filibusters as a matter of party loyalty," the Pennsylvania Republican said.
"And I think, if we voted our consciences, we wouldn't have filibusters, and we wouldn't have a nuclear option."