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Civil rights and religious leaders align
to oppose legislative 'nuclear option'

May 6, 2005, New York – A historic civil rights organization has joined the National Council of Churches USA in warning that efforts to eliminate the Senate filibuster may dismantle the system of checks and balances that once made civil rights legislation possible, and could now alter the fabric of American society. 

Threats to change Senate rules so filibusters against judicial appointments could be ended by a 51 percent vote represent "a small skirmish," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.  

Henderson joined NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar in a forum in New York May 6 to respond to right-wing religious groups that want to end the filibuster. The forum was moderated by Professor Sonia Jarvis, Visiting Ackerman Professor of Equality and Justice in America at Baruch College, New York.

On May 10, a letter from 17 civil rights and religious leaders was sent to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, stating that invoking the "nuclear option" of eliminating the filibuster "will set a dangerous precedent that has implications far beyond our nation's courts."

"This is a prelude to a bigger fight over Supreme Court appointments,” Henderson said at the forum.. “With a 51 percent majority, Attila the Hun could be confirmed." 

“Religion has been used as a justification for some of the best causes in U.S. history, but also to justify a lot of evil, like slavery and segregation,” he said. “It is especially important that progressive voices in the religious community be heard.” 

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) was founded in 1950 by three giants of the civil rights movement: A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP; and Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. It is the nation's premier civil rights coalition, and has coordinated the national legislative campaign on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.  

Henderson pointed out that this legislation could not have passed without a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans, such as former Congressman John Buchanan of Alabama, who sat quietly in the audience (left).  

“Now you can’t have bipartisanship when one party is playing hard ball and the other is playing an entirely different game,” Henderson said.  

Most people of faith in the U.S. are not right wing or left wing, Edgar said. “The U.S. is made up of the religious middle, decent people who do what their doctor tells them and what their president tells them,” he said.  

“In the late 1970s, there was a civil marriage between the far right and the religious right,” Edgar said. “We want to see our elected officials have faith, but we have started to see the right cross the line. Where the line was crossed for me was the telecast (“Justice Sunday, April 24) when the right said that anyone who did not old their point of view was un-American and unfaithful. Those of us in the middle to left of the faith community aren’t going to take it anymore.” 

If the filibuster is weakened, it could lead to a right-wing dominance “that can actually change the fabric of the society in which we live,” Edgar said. 

Jarvis (right) acknowledged that the filibuster “was used for so many years against civil rights legislation. This shows you how upside down things have gotten. But there are very few processes available to the minority party that enables them to say, ‘let’s slow down that train.” 

The May 10 letter from civil rights and religious leaders to Senators Frist and Reid said the elimination of the filibuster means "there will be nothing to stop the majority from cutting off debate on regressive proposals concerning issues such as education, civil liberties, national security, and veteran's benefits."

The letter was signed by Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Julian Bond, Chairman of the NAACP; the Rev. Robert W. Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA; Marcia Greenberger, Co-President, National Women's Law Center; Dr. Dorothy I. Height, Chairperson, and Wade Henderson, Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., President and Founder, Rainbow PUSH; the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Chairman Emeritus, Black Leadership Forum; and Marc H. Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League.

Also, Karen K. Narasaki, President and Executive Director, National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium; Ralph Neas, President, People for the American Way; Debra L. Ness, President, and Judith L. Lichtman, Senior Advisor, National Partnership for Women and Families; Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Theodore M. Shaw, Director-Counsel and President, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; William L. Taylor, Chair, Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights; Patrisha A. Wright, Director of Government Affairs, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund; and Raul Yzaguirre, Former President, National Council of La Raza.

For the full text of the letter, click here.

Contact: NCC News, Philip E. Jenks, (212) 870-2252,


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