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Justice under fire
The religious right attempts a coup against the federal judiciary. Will it succeed — or prompt a backlash?

CHICHESTER, New Hampshire — Not that there should have been any doubt. But just in case anyone watching the religious-right television extravaganza Justice Sunday really believed the goal was simply to stop those nasty Democrats from filibustering George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, set matters straight in a hurry. What was at stake, Dobson said, was "the redefinition of marriage." And "further assaults on the sanctity of life." And "Terri Schiavo, bless her heart, ... turned down four times by this Supreme Court." And "pornography, unchecked and unlimited."

The program stretched out for an hour and a half. But Dobson, in a few broad strokes, had laid out the agenda as clearly and as creepily as anyone could manage for the rest of the evening: deny gay men and lesbians the same marriage rights that other Americans enjoy; eliminate reproductive choice; take away from families the ability to make painful end-of-life decisions; and regulate what you see and read, lest you be led into the temptation of impure thoughts. Broadcast from the Highview Baptist Church, in Louisville, Kentucky, Justice Sunday was a triumph of new media, beamed by satellite and webcast into churches and homes across the country. Organizers claimed that the program had "made its way into" some 61 million households, phraseology that seems aimed at eliding the question of how many folks actually watched it. Nevertheless, the broadcast emerged as the television event of the weekend despite flying almost entirely below the radar of the mainstream media.

Late last Sunday afternoon I drove to this small (population: 2236) village outside Concord, New Hampshire, to watch Justice Sunday at the Chichester Congregational Church, a historic meetinghouse in the classic New England style. I’d learned on the Web site of the Family Research Council, the lead sponsor of the broadcast, that the Chichester church was one of several within a couple of hours of my home that would screen the program. The pastor, David Bezanson, had responded to my e-mail inquiry that he’d be happy to host a member of the media. So there I was at 7 p.m., with a handful of people who would eventually number a dozen, watching the satellite feed on a movie screen at the front of the room, where Bezanson would normally preach.

Conservatives may rail against the so-called culture of victimization, but they wallowed in it on Sunday. The theme, repeated over and over, was that "people of faith" — and especially Christians — are not allowed to become federal judges if they hold deep religious beliefs. Every few moments a banner that read STOP FILIBUSTERING PEOPLE OF FAITH was flashed on the screen. Speaker after speaker insisted that the Democrats were trying to take away what Republicans had rightfully won in the election last November. Emphasizing the anti-gay theme, which was never far below the surface, the Reverend Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, held up the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision as an example of judicial activism run amok. The court, he declared, had created "a constitutional right to sodomy ... by reading into the Constitution what they want to find." Why, Mohler said, such judges are no better than those who say the Bible is anything other than "the inerrant and infallible word of God." By this point, a casual viewer could have been forgiven if she couldn’t remember exactly who was being accused of religious intolerance.

Given the fire and brimstone spewing in every direction, the much-anticipated appearance by Senate majority leader Bill Frist was a letdown. The evening’s MC, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, introduced Frist by saying, "He has really been demonized for the fact that he wants to communicate to you and to me tonight." But the presidential wanna-be — appearing via videotape — was merely boring, making some inadvertently humorous comments about "our country’s desperate need for more civility," and paying tribute to one of Bush’s stalled ultraconservative nominees, Priscilla Owen, before blandly telling the audience that he was considering steps to end judicial filibusters — including the so-called nuclear option, by which Vice-President Dick Cheney, as presiding officer of the Senate, would simply rule that judicial nominees could be approved by a 51-vote majority. Of course, we already knew that. If Frist were determined not to make any news, he succeeded.

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Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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