Who's on Frist?: Senate Majority Leader To Join Religious Right Assault on Federal Judiciary

Religious Right pressures are apparently getting to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Earlier this month, Frist sought to distance himself from some of the vitriolic attacks on the judiciary launched by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Said Frist at that time, "We have a fair and independent judiciary today."

Frist was roundly criticized by the Religious Right for being off message, and movement leaders moved quickly to rein him in. Not surprisingly, Frist is now singing a different tune and has decided to join forces the fundamentalist-sponsored attack on the independent judiciary.

The New York Times reports that Frist will join a string of Religious Right leaders, such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, in an April 24 judge-bashing telecast from a Kentucky church. The event is sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC).

The FRC event, dubbed "Justice Sunday," will be an evening full of Religious Right activists screeching about our nation's federal judges and demanding that far-right fundamentalists stand up to take back their country. According to the FRC ad for the event, described in the Times piece and available on FRC's web site, the Senate filibuster rules are being used "against people of faith."

Senate Democrats have used the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to end debate, against only a handful of the Bush administration's judicial nominees. Frist, prodded by the likes of Dobson and the FRC, has promised to end the filibuster rules and allow a simple majority to approve nominees to the federal bench.

FRC President and protégé of Dobson, Tony Perkins told the Times that federal courts had to be accountable to politicians because "the liberal, anti-Christian dogma of the left has been repudiated in almost every recent election, the courts have become the last great bastion for liberalism."

Frist, who is reportedly planning to run for president in 2008, likes to portray himself as a moderate. His comments about the need for an "independent" judiciary were apparently designed to calm the fears of centrist voters who are turned off by DeLay's over-the-top rhetoric against judges.

But behind closed doors, Frist takes a different line. Addressing the FRC's "Washington Briefing" last month, Frist sounded like TV preacher Pat Robertson, railing against out-of-control federal judges, gay rights activists, civil rights activists and just about anyone else who fails to follow Religious Right dogma.

Frist pledged fealty to the FRC agenda, telling the group, "In Congress we're going to continue to work on issues that are important to you, to me, above all to America's future. That includes good judges, the sanctity of marriage, and, I just mentioned, the culture of life, as well as protection for the unborn."

What does Frist mean by "good judges"? He explained that as a congressional leader he would do whatever it took, including altering longstanding Senate rules, to rein in "activist judges."

Frist also heaped praise on the FRC and its supporters because they "stand up for our children, you stand up for our families, you never back down." He never intended his comments to be made public, but Americans United obtained a recording of the comments and gave it to the media.

Frist, a heart surgeon who often reminds people of his medical credentials, has apparently decided on a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach: Take a reasonable stand before the American public, then go behind closed doors and toss red meat to Religious Right extremists who want to destroy federal courts, outlaw abortion, pass laws to oppress gays and take all other actions to trash democracy.

This time, Frist has misdiagnosed the problem. The American people are tired of heavy-handed Religious Right intrusions into their private lives and will not stand for attempts to undercut the independence of the courts. For the health of our democracy, Frist needs to write a new prescription.