Religious code words

Posted: Aug 11, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

On May 1 in a Senate Judiciary Committee session, Schumer raised religious questions in connection with the nomination of lawyer J. Leon Holmes as district judge from Arkansas. Holmes has the support of his state's two Democratic senators, but not Chuck Schumer. The New Yorker argued that the conservative religious views of Holmes, a devout Catholic, disqualified him because of disagreements interpreting the separation of church and state. Schumer contended that "religious beliefs cannot dictate government policy, even though they can infuse our values."

That was preparation for Schumer's opposition to Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor for the appellate bench, another conservative Catholic who is the most recent of the filibustered Bush nominees. In the Judiciary Committee June 11, Schumer said Pryor's beliefs "are so well known, so deeply held that it's very hard to believe that they're not going to influence" him on the bench. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, another Judiciary member, also has cited the "deeply held beliefs" standard.

Carl Anderson, chief executive officer of the Knights of Columbus, protested the "deeply held beliefs" description in a July 30 letter to the Judiciary Committee. His organization's resolution passed last Thursday suggested using those words pose a prohibited religious test.

"I think there is a willingness to play to anti-Catholic views by the use of certain code words, and I think there is disproportional impact on Catholics," Anderson told me. He added that Democratic senators "think they can get away with it, but as more and more Catholics find out, it's going to cause a backlash."

At the May 1 Judiciary Committee hearing, freshman Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina responded to Schumer's attack on Leon Holmes with a mild admonition about taking views on a "religious matter" out of context: "I wish we would all (stop) trying to take a quote or a statement or a sentence and construct an image of an individual most of us don't know to basically destroy their career." Three months later, Southern Baptist Graham is furious about religious code words and promises an explosion after Labor Day.