Impending speech by Thomas prompts cries of partisanship

Justice will address group calling for Clinton's ouster

February 02, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' out-of-court speaking schedule landed him in a new controversy yesterday.

Next Tuesday, just three days before the Senate is scheduled to vote on President Clinton's impeachment, Thomas is to give the keynote speech at a Washington conference of a group that advocates Clinton's ouster -- the Claremont Institute, a California conservative group with close ties to the Republican Party in that state.

In a letter yesterday, Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged Thomas to cancel the speech. Americans United is a liberal, private group that has been campaigning to reduce the influence in government of religious organizations -- including challenges to some of those organizations' tax-exempt status.

The Claremont Institute dismissed the challenge as "a crass attempt to generate publicity" for the "narrow and peculiar views" held by Americans United.

The institute insisted it was "a non-partisan research and education organization." In the past, Thomas has generally refused to cancel speaking engagements, even when they stir controversy. Thomas has spoken to the Claremont Institute once before and accepted a "statesmanship" award from it, but Americans United did not protest. The group also did not protest earlier speeches by Thomas before conservative audiences and took no position on his appointment to the court amid deep controversy eight years ago.

The group's executive director, Barry W. Lynn, said Americans United reacted this time because the speech next week "comes at the worst time for such an appearance," amid a sharp rise in partisanship -- especially over impeachment -- and amid further indications of the institute's growing alliance with the Republican Party.

"Partisanship is what pushes this over the edge," Lynn told reporters here.

Countering Lynn's accusations, the institute said in a statement that it "has always been, and will continue to be, a non-partisan research and education organization."

Thomas did not immediately reply to Lynn's letter, and the court said he would have no comment.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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