Frist Accused of Exploiting Religion Issue
April 16, 2005

DEMOCRATIC SENATORS ACCUSED Senator Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader, of exploiting religion for partisan ends by taking part in a telecast portraying them as "against people of faith" for blocking President Bush's judicial nominations.

"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 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."

Dr. Frist will join the telecast through a four-minute videotape, his spokesman said yesterday. Its organizers hope to enlist the grass-roots support of conservative Christians for an imminent Senate battle over Republican proposals to change Senate rules that have enabled the Democratic minority to filibuster, blocking Senate votes on 10 of Mr. Bush's appeals court nominees.

Both sides say the procedural fight over the Democrats' power as the minority party could take place within the next two weeks and will shape the contests over nominees to the Supreme Court.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement that he was "deeply troubled" by Dr. Frist's participation. "Whatever one's views may be on this or any other issue," Mr. Foxman said, "playing the religious card is as unacceptable as playing the race card."

The event is scheduled for the second night of Passover, when many Jews will be attending seders.

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."

In response, Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Dr. Frist, accused the Democrats of a double standard, noting that Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, sometimes used biblical phrases and religious language to denounce President Bush from church pulpits during the presidential campaign.

"Senate Democrats said nothing in response," Mr. Stevenson said. "Now, as they prepare to continue their unprecedented filibuster against the president's judicial nominations, they criticize the leader for agreeing to deliver a similar address pressing for fair treatment of the president's judicial nominees."

Both sides are escalating their campaigns to win over public opinion.

On Wednesday, the Judicial Confirmation Network, a conservative group set up to organize grass-roots support for the judicial nominees, said it was making an initial purchase of $250,000 in cable and local television advertisements with similar religious themes.

Displaying pictures of Senator Reid and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, an announcer declares: "They want God out of the Pledge of Allegiance. They say child pornography is protected by the Constitution. Who are these people? Arrogant judges."

Yesterday, Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, which is already spending $5 million on television advertisements defending Democratic filibusters, responded by noting that courts had never found a right to child pornography and that the Supreme Court had overturned an appeals court ruling that public schools could not require recitation of the phrase "under God" as part of the pledge.

After learning that the Judicial Confirmation Network had bought advertisements on the Sunday morning political news programs, Mr. Neas said his group had spent $170,000 for advertising on the same ones, setting up "dueling ads." Mr. Neas said the organization was now considering creating another advertisement designed for what he called the Republican "manipulation of religion for political purposes."