Confirmation Debate Morphs Into Bitter Religious Battle

By Ami Eden

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
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Allies of embattled Bush judicial pick William Pryor Jr., whose nomination is being opposed by Democrats over his controversial views on church-state issues, are trying to enlist a leading Orthodox Jewish organization in their fight to paint his foes as anti-Catholic extremists.

The Committee for Justice, an advocacy group created to fight for President Bush’s judicial picks, is citing the Orthodox Union in its literature supporting Pryor, who is Alabama’s attorney general. The committee has come under fire for its recent advertisements accusing Democratic senators and liberal groups of seeking to impose a religious litmus test on Pryor and other nominees to the federal bench. In defense of its campaign, the committee is citing several religious groups, including the O.U. The Orthodox group, which represents some 1,000 congregations, has defended Pryor and objected to the rhetoric used by his opponents but has stopped short of formally endorsing him.

Other Jewish groups, however, are lining up with the liberals in what has quickly evolved from a controversial confirmation battle into an increasingly bitter debate over the role of religion in the public square.

Democrats succeeded last week in filibustering Pryor’s nomination, making him the third Bush choice to be held up in such a manner.

Pryor’s critics, including several Catholic senators, vehemently deny that they are motivated by religious bias, saying that their objections center on his opposition to abortion rights and fierce criticisms of Supreme Court decisions upholding church-state separation. Representatives of several Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee, have joined Democratic senators in condemning the pro-Pryor campaign, which featured a print advertisement with a “Catholics Need Not Apply” sign hanging from a door labeled “Judicial Chambers.”

“Just as religion tests for public office are wrong, so too is the attempted silencing of legitimate debate with the false stigma of religious bigotry,” the AJCommittee’s executive director, David Harris, said in a statement released last week. The AJCommittee, which has refused to join other Jewish civil rights groups in opposing Pryor, condemned what it described as attempts to “tar” the “legitimate concerns over his nomination as anti-Catholic.”

The debate over whether religious bigotry is at play appears to be splitting two groups — the O.U. and AJCommittee — that have refused to stake out a formal position on Pryor’s nomination but often line up on opposite sides in church-state debates. A closer look at statements released by both groups, however, suggests that at least on one level they are advocating a similar ideal: that religion be kept out of confirmation debates.

Few politicians or activists on either side of the Pryor debate would challenge the need for some sort of separation of church and state or the idea that public officials should not be subjected to a religious litmus test. But, with a new breed of conservative politician willing to couch policy positions in religious terms and liberals bent on stopping any lowering of the church-state wall, the idealistic view espoused by the two Jewish groups appears to represent an increasingly lonely, perhaps untenable, position.

According to this view, what’s at issue in the Pryor debate is not so much the question of whether a candidate’s religious beliefs should be kept out of confirmation battles, but the ground rules for how the subject should be addressed. Even the executive director of the Committee for Justice, Sean Rushton, told the Forward that it was legitimate for senators to question nominees about their ability to balance publicly stated religious views with an obligation to uphold existing law.

“If they had asked him about that and took his answer at face value or offered proof that his answer wasn’t true, that would have been about the law, that would have been appropriate,” Rushton said. The problem, he added, is that during his confirmation hearing, Pryor vowed to uphold the law even when it conflicted with his religious views and cited examples of when he did so as attorney general in Alabama.

“I was there at the hearing,” Rushton said. “It seemed to be very clear to me that they were drilling him again and again about his deeply held personal beliefs.”

Rushton’s organization has focused much of its criticism on Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Richard Durbin, a Catholic legislator from Illinois. In a letter to The Washington Post defending his organization’s campaign, the chairman of the Committee for Justice, former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, accused Durbin and Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, of injecting religion into the confirmation hearings.

Gray complained that Durbin had criticized Pryor for making public statements that raised the “concerns of those who don’t happen to be Christian,” asserting a religious viewpoint that is “inconsistent with the separation of church and state.” An aide to the first President Bush, Gray also criticized Durbin for saying to Pryor: “It is one thing to say that we have the freedom to practice. It is another thing to say that we condone by government action certain religious beliefs.”

Democrats and liberal groups have objected to public remarks made by Pryor in recent years. At a rally six years ago in support of an Alabama judge who had posted the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and other public buildings, Pryor said: “God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time and this place for all Christians… to save our country and save our courts.”

Also in 1997, speaking at a high-school graduation ceremony, Pryor declared: “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are rooted in a Christian perspective of the nature of government and the nature of man. The challenge of the next millennium will be to preserve the American experiment by restoring its Christian perspective.”

Pryor has strongly criticized the Roe v. Wade ruling guaranteeing abortion rights, claiming that the Supreme Court “swept aside the laws of the 50 states and created — out of thin air — a constitutional right to murder an unborn child.”

Officials at the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and American Jewish Congress said that such comments prompted them to abandon their typical silence on judicial nominees. Those groups have joined the Reform movement and the National Council of Jewish Women in opposing Pryor.

Pryor’s opponents say that such remarks make it impossible for Americans to have confidence in his ability to serve as a neutral arbiter. But, in a letter to Senator Orrin Hatch, the Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee, the O.U. argued that “Pryor’s record as Alabama’s Attorney General demonstrates his ability to faithfully enforce the law.”

In an interview with the Forward, the Washington representative of the O.U., Nathan Diament, echoed the Committee for Justice’s criticisms of liberal groups opposing Pryor. Diament said, however, that the committee’s recent advertising campaign was “probably unfair” in so far as it blames Senate opposition to Pryor on religious bigotry. Still, Diament added, Democratic senators and Jewish groups were inadvertently opening themselves up to criticism by raising concerns about the “personal” beliefs of Pryor and other nominees, rather than focusing on specific legal questions.

“I don’t know why they would dip into that phraseology,” Diament said. “We in the Jewish community should imagine if there was a pattern of asking Jewish nominees about their deeply held beliefs. If two or three nominees faced that line of questioning, Jewish organizations would be bouncing off the rooftops, insisting that this was a code phrase.”

The claim that criticism of Pryor has generally focused on his personal religious beliefs, as opposed to his view of the law, was rejected by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Saperstein added, however, that Pryor had made his religious views a legitimate topic of debate by publicly intertwining them with his view of the law.

“He himself connects some of his policy beliefs to his religious beliefs,” Saperstein said. “So it’s a bit odd for Pryor, Senator Hatch or Nathan Diament to object to people raising questions about the connection.”

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