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Frist's intolerance

JUST AS the number two man in the US House, Tom DeLay. is being abandoned by a few brave Republicans who, we hope, will be the vanguard of a growing movement, the leader of the Senate, Bill Frist, has grabbed the spotlight. Frist has joined evangelical Christian conservatives who are charging that Democrats who oppose President Bush's judicial nominees are ''against people of faith."

While Frist has not used those words himself, he has agreed to appear in a telecast April 24, which organizers have labeled ''Justice Sunday," according to an article yesterday in The New York Times. The telecast is being promoted with the charge that the filibuster, which the Democratic minority in the Senate has been using to oppose judicial appointments, reflects a bias against religious believers. For Frist to suggest that honest differences over policy issues are proof of a religious bias in Democrats is even more scary than it is smarmy. Will every political difference now open opponents to such accusations? And whose definition of ''faith" is in use here?

Values and morals -- often derived from religion -- steer the judgments of all policymakers. But the specific tenets of an individual religion do not earn a place in civil law simply because they work in that religion. People of faith -- of many faiths -- of course have roles as policymakers. But none should be trying to transcribe their religion onto the nation's law books or place their believers on the courts because of those beliefs.

While the US population was once overwhelmingly Christian, it is now more diverse. And even when the Christian majority was huge, the Founders wisely acted to ensure that there would never be a Christian government.

It is worth remarking that Frist and DeLay, despite their differing ranks, have the same title: majority leader. The Senate version of the job is traditionally less partisan, but Frist now seems determined to join DeLay in leading the Republican evangelical Christians against the rest of the world.

American Christians will have to decide for themselves whether they feel represented by this crusade. But a great many Americans, including many Christians of both parties, believe that faith is and should be a personal matter.

If Frist has any evidence that Democrats are opposing judicial nominees just because of those nominees' personal religious beliefs, let him bring it forward. Failing that, he should concede that fouling a genuine ideological debate with charges of religious bigotry is nothing more than a smear campaign. He should withdraw from participation in ''Justice Sunday." .

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