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Cable Channel Says it Was a Mistake to Air ‘Justice Sunday’

The president of a board overseeing religious programming on a cable television channel in Louisville, Ky., says it was a mistake to air last weekend’s “Justice Sunday” telecast, because it violated station guidelines prohibiting endorsements of political candidates or parties.

Lucinda Laird, president of the Channel 19 board, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the station’s general manager, who made the decision to air the special program, should have first consulted with the board.

Laird, rector at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, called it a “mistake” but not “the end of the world.” She said board members were unaware of any complaints but were taking steps to make sure the board considers special programming in the future.

The program, broadcast from Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, opposed Senate Democrats’ filibuster against President Bush’s judicial nominees as being “against people of faith.” Speakers included the Senate’s leading Republican, who is seeking to have rules changed to force an up-or-down vote on judges, and Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“We believe in a strong separation of church and state,” Laird said. She called the Justice Sunday event partisan and divisive. Laird, who participated in a demonstration protesting the Highview rally, said it would have been inappropriate to air that event, also.

Another board member, Cecelia Price of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville, also told the newspaper that she didn’t think the program should have run, because of its political nature and “out of respect for the diversity of our membership.”

The station board consists of members from three partnering groups: a “Baptist coalition” representing the seminary and Baptist churches, including Highview; the archdiocese; and a diverse consortium of religious organizations called the Kentuckiana Interfaith Community.

Lawrence Smith, vice president of communications at Southern Seminary and a Channel 19 board member, told the newspaper he would have voted in favor of airing the telecast if it had come before the board, but he wouldn’t have minded if other board members did not approve.

A minister at Highview said the church asked that the service be broadcast, because church members wanted to see it and there wasn’t enough space in the sanctuary for everyone to attend.

Another staff member declined to comment on whether it was appropriate for the station to air the broadcast. “We’re not going to get into the business of running their television station,” said Garry Gupton, minister to adults at Highview.

But Gupton said the program did not endorse political candidates or parties. “The only thing asked was that senators do what they are constitutionally mandated to do, which was to vote” on judicial candidates, he said.

Laird, however, said judicial filibusters are a partisan issue, and the event’s organizers presented only the Republican side. The participation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, on videotape during the telecast “crossed the line” into partisan politics, she said.

Laird isn’t alone in that observation.

A blog on the Americans United for Separation of Church and State Web site described the church event, sponsored by the Family Research Council, as “deeply political” and said Frist’s participation “put him in a controversial spot.”

“The people he’s dealing with are not going to rest until there’s a constitutional Armageddon in which the religious right controls all three branches of government,” AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said in the Washington Post.

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said in a statement that Justice Sunday was really about the religious right’s “hysterical fear that gay people will secure equal rights by doing the same thing minorities in the nation have done for more than 200 years–seeking redress through the courts.”

A separate task force statement said the Justice Sunday sponsors “do not speak for a majority of people of faith.”

A Tuesday report of Justice Sunday in EthicsDaily.com cited a story in Reuters attributing a quote about “squishy” senators to Mohler. The Washington Post attributed the same quote to another speaker.

On Wednesday the Associated Press ran a correction saying it wrongly paraphrased a quote by Mohler that putting more evangelicals in judgeships would produce more court rulings in tune with religious convictions of churchgoers. “We are not calling for persons merely to be moral, we want them to be believers in the Lord Jesus Christ,” referred not to judges, but to people in general, the correction said.

EthicsDaily.com removed sections containing both quotes from the story, which is now in our archives.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous stories:
Frist Opposes Filibuster at Church Rally
Senator Labels Comment by Southern Baptist Leader Anti-Catholic
Filibusters and Faith
NCC Leader Criticizes Planners of ‘Justice Sunday’
Senate Leader Joins Religious Simulcast Decrying Senate Filibuster
A Tale of Two Churches: A Microcosm