Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The last acceptable prejudice

One of my favorite writers has nailed it again.
Christine Flowers in the Philadelphia Daily News on Monday pointed out America's last acceptable prejudice -- anti-Catholicism -- in the John Roberts Supreme Court confirmation battle.
The headline on her column... "No Catholics Need Apply."
(I include the entire column since, as a freelancer, her stuff tends to disappear from the Web site rather quickly when compared to staffers.)

IN THE SUMMER when I was 7, I made the felicitous acquaintance of Wendy, who was destined to become my best friend for several weeks.
Wendy was Protestant, the first non-Catholic I ever met, although I never actually learned what denomination. I only knew she didn't go to communion, ate meat on Fridays and worshipped in a building with no statues. (She could even have been Hindu, Jewish or Quaker, for all I really knew at at that point.)
But Wendy taught me an important lesson: never underestimate the mysterious power of religion. I'm not talking about the ability of faith to heal the tortured soul, or the palliative quality of prayer. I mean the tendency we all have to view other religions with an interest bordering on suspicion.
But our relationship was shattered when Wendy announced that I was a "cannibal" because her mother said that Catholics ate the body and blood of Jesus.
No amount of explanation could convince her that I wasn't that kind of carnivore, and our friendship ended as quickly as it began. From that moment, I realized my religion would always set me slightly apart from the mainstream.
During the last few weeks, I've wondered if John Roberts has had occasion to feel the same way.
This brilliant lawyer with an impeccable pedigree is poised to join the Supreme Court, barring any unforeseen complications like a stealth witness playing Anita Hill to his Clarence Thomas or unearthed memos indicating his opposition to - who knows? - Brown v. Board of Education.
The fact that the nominee is exceptionally well-qualified has made it difficult for those who oppose him to gain much momentum before the confirmation hearings.
But fear not, oh ye of little faith. There's one thing to fall back on that gets trotted out every time a conservative is in the pole position for a major court post - and serves its purpose admirably: religion. And not just any religion. We have a bona fide, practicing Catholic on center stage.
Normally, political correctness prevents (or at least discourages) a direct attack on an individual's religious beliefs. Well, that's not completely accurate. If you are a Mormon governor of Massachusetts named Mitt Romney (but not a Mormon Senate minority leader named Harry Reid) Ted Kennedy will question the ethics of your faith and, in particular, your religion's treatment of minorities.
Or if you're a Muslim, cultural sensitivity would prohibit any probing questions on the role of women in your religion. And I'm relatively certain that Christian Scientists wouldn't have to explain their views on assisted suicide. But if you are a Catholic, and have just been nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court, you can expect to be questioned about your church's views on women, its position on euthanasia, its treatment of sexual minorities, and more generally, your ability to separate your "personally held beliefs" from your loyalty to the Constitution.
Article VI of the Constitution provides that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Magnificent words. I wonder if Sen. Dick Durbin is familiar with them. It was recently reported that the senator asked Judge Roberts in a private meeting if he believed there were any conflicts between the "moral imperatives" of his Roman Catholicism and his duties as a jurist.
This is a code phrase for "Are you now or have you ever been an anti-abortionist?" If Roberts were Muslim, I don't think there'd be many questions about how the Koran would influence his perspective on due process. Or, assuming he was a Jehovah's Witness, I doubt there'd be an investigation into his views on the Pledge of Allegiance.
The nominee has stated in the past that there was nothing in his personal beliefs that would prevent him from carrying out his judicial responsibilities.
This apparently isn't good enough for the three horsemen of the apocalypse (Sens. Durbin, Kennedy and Leahy, Catholics all) who will grill Roberts on his ability to separate faith from jurisprudence. But court-watchers know there is no uniform "Catholic" view of the law. Just ask William Brennan, who strongly supported abortion rights. Or Anthony Kennedy, who found that the right to privacy covered homosexual sex.
There's nothing wrong in asking someone about their religious beliefs and the impact this might have on their judicial philosophy. The problem is when we presume that a person's faith makes them unfit for office, a presumption that arises too often when dealing with Catholics.
I thought we'd laid that to rest in 1960. Talk about Lazarus.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. E-mail
If you agree that she's hit the target, drop her a line and tell her I sent you. She'd appreciate it.