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Catholic Baiting

From the August 5, 2003 Dallas Morning News: Are Catholic judicial nominees automatically suspect now?

12:00 AM, Aug 6, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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WILLIAM PRYOR isn't going to become a federal judge. Not this year, not next.

Pryor is a nominee for the appeals court that encompasses his native Alabama, Florida and Georgia. But he has become the third Bush nominee to hit the hard wall of a Democratic filibuster. Under Senate rules, you need 60 votes to end debate and allow an up-or-down vote. That means a determined minority can prevail, and in Pryor's case, 44 Democrats joined to block his path last week.

Pryor's only chance of Senate confirmation lies in (a) Bush's re-election and (b) the expansion of the Republican majority in the Senate. It lies, in other words, in certain election outcomes in 2004. Which brings us to the subject of the ads run in Pryor's behalf in Maine and Rhode Island.

Those ads, paid for by a group called the Committee for Justice, showed a photo of a courthouse door with a sign saying, "CATHOLICS NEED NOT APPLY." The text said, "Some in the U.S. Senate are attacking Bill Pryor for having 'deeply held' Catholic beliefs to prevent him from becoming a federal judge. Don't they know the Constitution expressly prohibits religious tests for public office?"

During his hearing, Senate Democrats expressed concern about Pryor's "deeply held personal beliefs," but none attacked him for what he himself would agree are his "deeply held Catholic beliefs," which include opposition to abortion. A spokesman for the Committee for Justice now clarifies that no senator has been "intentionally anti-Catholic." And he broadens the charge: Senate Democrats use "a litmus test that would exclude people of orthodox religious beliefs--Jew, Christian and Muslim alike--from the courts."

Nonetheless, the point of the ads was to reach Catholics, there being large Catholic populations in both Maine and Rhode Island. And the ads have succeeded in getting the attention of Catholics not just there but nationwide, in part because of the Democrats' sharp response. Indeed, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, himself a Catholic, has managed to lend credibility to the charge of a religious test.

"As a person who was raised Catholic and is a practicing Catholic," Durbin said before the Judiciary Committee vote on the Pryor nomination, "I deeply resent this new line of attack. . . . Many Catholics who oppose abortion personally do not believe the laws of the land should prohibit abortion for all others in extreme cases involving rape, incest and the life and health of the mother."

It is odd that Durbin should bring up what other Catholics, contrary to their church's teaching, believe about abortion--unless he thinks that perspective is relevant to an assessment of Pryor's nomination. Could it be that for Durbin, some Catholics (who think as he does on abortion) may apply for judicial office but not others (who believe the church's teaching)? That indeed would be a religious test.

Republican strategists believe that a debate over the idea of a religious test for judicial office will lead more Catholics to vote Republican next year. They could be right. Catholics, writes Amy Sullivan in the May issue of the neoliberal Washington Monthly, "are natural Democrats. . . . But as religiously minded voters, they also feel alienated from the Democratic Party over a range of moral and cultural issues, including abortion."

Bill Clinton, she observes, managed to return to the Democratic party many Catholics who had voted Republican during the 1980s. But George W. Bush won back many of those voters. And in 2002, 56 percent of active Catholics voted Republican. If enough of them vote Republican in 2004, a renominated Pryor might not face a filibuster.

The argument of Sullivan's piece, by the way, is that for Democrats to become America's majority again, they "will have to get religion," meaning the party's leaders will have to address religiously minded voters and demonstrate they are welcome. Senate Democrats could begin that project by announcing that no one who opposes abortion on religious grounds is unqualified for judicial office for that reason.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.