Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The Senate was in its August recess last week, but the Knights of Columbus were meeting in Washington. The world's largest Catholic fraternal organization Thursday passed a resolution condemning opposition to federal judicial nominees because of "deeply held beliefs" stemming from their Catholic faith. That follows intense debate on the Senate floor just before the Senate recessed.

On the evening of July 30, the usually circumspect senators engaged in a rare confrontation over religion. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, third-ranking in the Republican leadership and a daily Catholic communicant, accused colleagues of establishing a prohibition for the federal judiciary of anybody with "deep faith in Catholicism, having to subscribe to the church's teaching on abortion." Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, assistant Democratic floor leader and a pro-choice Catholic, responded passionately that Santorum and other Republicans "have crossed a line they never should have crossed" in charging anti-Catholic bias.

It is the Democrats who have gone a bridge too far, in the view of Santorum and the mainstream of Republican senators. Multiple blockages of President Bush's judicial nominees constitute a ticking time bomb in the Senate, and religion is the detonator. The resolution by the Knights of Columbus signals that this is no mere Capitol Hill debate but derives from America's grass roots.

Once George W. Bush was elected, Democratic leaders vowed to prevent confirmation of all unacceptable nominations to the federal bench, preparing for the day that Supreme Court vacancies are filled. Filibusters blocking at least six pending nominees produced Republican frustration and now raise the question of a religious test.

At the center of this increasingly noisome debate is the aggressive Sen. Charles Schumer. Elected from New York in 1998 by ousting Republican Alfonse D'Amato in a tumultuous campaign, Schumer has grown in confidence and assertiveness as he nears virtually unopposed re-election next year with a massive war chest. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is the backroom mastermind of the Democratic judicial strategy, but Schumer is its point man. It is he who has taken the debate into previously forbidden religious territory.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

©Creators Syndicate