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Bush touts religious life of Miers as selling point

Oct. 13, 2005

by DEB RIECHMANN, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The White House tried Wednesday to patch a growing fissure in the Republican Party over Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers by pointing to her conservative religious beliefs.

"Part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion," President Bush said.

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Bush defended his nomination, saying Miers was highly qualified, a trailblazer in the law in Texas and someone who would strictly interpret the Constitution -- something his conservative supporters want evidence to support. He said his advisers' comments about Miers' churchgoing were meant to give people a better understanding of his little-known nominee.

"People are interested to know why I picked Harriet Miers," he said. "They want to know Harriet Miers' background. They want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. Part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion."

That comment further inflamed critics of the nomination who contend Miers' religion is being used to sell the nominee to the right flank of Bush's conservative base. They argue that the president is asking them to trust him and blindly support his nomination even though Miers has no judicial record that would offer insight into how she would vote on the high court.

On a radio show broadcast Wednesday, James Dobson, founder of the conservative Focus on the Family, said that before Miers was nominated, deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove reassured him that she was an "evangelical Christian, that she is from a very conservative church, which is almost universally pro-life."

Religion was an area the White House carefully avoided in pushing the chief justice nomination of John Roberts just a month ago. During his confirmation hearings, Roberts sought to assure senators that his rulings would be guided by his understanding of the facts of cases, the law and the Constitution, not by his personal views. "My faith and my religious beliefs do not play a role," said Roberts, who is Catholic.

"The White House and the religious right leaders rallying around the beleaguered nomination of Harriet Miers continue to cite her religious beliefs and the church she attends as reasons to believe she will oppose abortion rights and to bolster support for her among activists on the far right," said Ralph Neas, director of the liberal People for the American Way. "What's wrong for John Roberts can't be right for Harriet Miers."

The Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said anyone who tried to bring up the topic of religion during the Roberts confirmation was labeled a bigot. "Now Bush and Rove are touting where Miers goes to church and using that as a selling point," Lynn said. "The hypocrisy is staggering."

A little over a week since Miers was nominated, complaints continued from the right. Other conservatives, however, jumped into the fray to support Miers.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, who has endorsed Miers, issued a warning to conservative senators who might be thinking of voting against her. "They're going to turn against a Christian who is a conservative picked by a conservative president and they're going to vote against her for confirmation? Not on your sweet life, if they want to stay in office," he said.

Evangelical support of Miers, however, is weaker than it was for Roberts, according to AP-Ipsos polling. In the days after the nominations, twice as many evangelicals felt strongly that Roberts should be confirmed to the Supreme Court as felt that way about Miers.

Republicans overall were less enthusiastic about Miers than Roberts. Almost three-fourths wanted Roberts confirmed, compared to six in 10 for Miers.

Dobson said Rove also said she had been a member of the Texas Right to Life. Told of Dobson's comments, Elizabeth Graham, director of the 300,000-member Texas Right to Life, said, "I don't know where he would have gotten that information. I'm not able to confirm or deny" whether Miers is a member. Graham said the membership list was not public.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said it was his understanding that Miers attended some of the group's fundraising events. Miers bought a $150 ticket to a Texas anti-abortion group's fundraising dinner in 1989, the year she won a term on the Dallas city council, said the group's president, Kyleen Wright of the Texans for Life Coalition, then called Texans United for Life. She said the dinner drew about 30 other officeholders or candidates as "bronze patrons," the lowest level of financial support.

Dobson said Rove also told him that some prospective court candidates bowed out because they didn't want to subject themselves or their families to a confirmation that "has become so vicious and so vitriolic and so bitter."