Religion had role in Miers pick

Part of his selection, Bush says

Christian leader says Rove assured him of her faith


WASHINGTON -- President Bush indicated yesterday that Harriet E. Miers' religious beliefs were a reason he chose to nominate her to the Supreme Court, comments that drew quick criticism from liberal groups that said religion should not be considered a qualification to sit on the nation's highest bench.

Bush's remarks came on the same day as Christian leader James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, told his radio show listeners that White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove assured him before the announcement of Miers' selection that she was a committed evangelical Christian.

"People ask me why I picked Harriet Miers," Bush said when asked about those assurances by reporters. "They want to know Harriet Miers' background. They want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions.

"And part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion. Part of it has to do with the fact that she was a pioneer woman and a trailblazer in the law in Texas."

Bush previously has stressed his knowledge of her character in discussing his nomination of her, but this was the first time he has publicly referred to her faith when asked about picking her.

Her comment about Miers as a trailblazer refers to her being the first woman to head a major law firm in Dallas and the first women elected president of the Texas state bar - facts he has mentioned before.

After Bush's comments yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan avoided a direct answer when asked whether Miers' religion played "no role at all in the president's decision-making."

He responded: "That's part of who she is. That's part of her background. That's what the president was talking about in his remarks in the Oval Office."

McClellan added: "Faith is very important to Harriet Miers. But she recognizes that faith and that her religion and that her personal views don't have a role to play when it comes to making decisions."

Liberal groups, which have taken a low profile since the nomination was announced, pointed out that White House officials took issue with Democratic senators who wanted to discuss Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s religious beliefs during his recent confirmation process. Roberts is Roman Catholic.

"We were told we weren't even allowed to bring up the topic of religion when John G. Roberts was nominated for the Supreme Court," Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement.

"Anyone who did was quickly labeled a bigot. Now Bush and Rove are touting where Miers goes to church and using that as a selling point. The hypocrisy is staggering."

Ralph Neas, president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, pointed to Article 6 of the Constitution, which states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust."

"The president and his people are using repeated assurances about Miers' religion to send not-so-subtle messages about how she might rule on the court on issues important to the president's political supporters," Neas said.

"It's a shabby ploy unworthy of the debate over a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court."

Kermit Hall, president of the State University of New York, Albany, and editor of the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, said that it is unusual in the history of Supreme Court nominations for a president to emphasize a nominee's religious beliefs or affiliation.

Since President Woodrow Wilson named Louis Brandeis to the high court, "tacitly there has been some understanding that we should have some Jewish representation on the court, just as nowadays there is some representation of gender and African-American background," Hall said.

"But I cannot think of any president who has ever made a nomination because of the religious beliefs that a person held," he said.

Miers' nomination has aroused little enthusiasm among some of Bush's core supporters, who had hoped the president would rely on Republican control of the Senate to pick a conservative with a well-known legal record.

Miers, who serves as White House counsel, has never been a judge.

Despite the foment among the president's conservative supporters, the nomination is proceeding according to schedule.

The Senate Judiciary Committee sent Miers a questionnaire yesterday that included several questions especially tailored for her - including a query about her experience dealing with constitutional issues and another that asks what her criteria for recusal would be in matters that might relate to her service in the Bush administration.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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