WASHINGTON — A Jewish senator has created a storm of controversy by questioning a Catholic judicial nominee over whether she could properly make decisions from the federal bench because of her faith.
During a nomination hearing on Wednesday for Amy Coney Barrett, a University of Notre Dame law professor nominated for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) made clear her skepticism the nominee would uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that ruled abortions were a constitutionally protected legal right.
“The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein told Barrett, a traditional Catholic and mother of seven. “And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.”
Those remarks — and the implication Barrett’s religious beliefs would unduly influence her as an appellate-court judge — have since triggered widespread condemnation, with many on social media and beyond exclaiming that Feinstein impinged on the nation’s prohibition on imposing religious tests for public office.
Jonathan Greenblatt, who heads the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted on Friday that “yes we need church/state divide, but hard/soft litmus tests for pol[itical] candidates or judicial nom[inees] = wrong.”
Kirsten Powers, a prominent columnist for USA Today, likewise tweeted a response, saying of Feinstein’s comments: “This is just religious bigotry, pure and simple.”
Moreover, Catholic leaders were quick to express their anger.
“Throwback to an era when Catholics were seen as unthinking tools of the Pope,” said James Martin, a priest who edits America Magazine, a Jesuit publication. “You can be a good Catholic citizen in our country. Ask JFK.”
For his part, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, wrote an indignant letter to Feinstein.
“No one was fooled by your question,” he said. “Why didn’t you come right out and ask her if she would take her judicial cues from the Vatican? That would have been more honest.”
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) also instigated controversy in that same Senate Judiciary Committee hearing — for his questioning Barrett whether she considers herself “an Orthodox Catholic?”
“Have you ever probed the faith of a non-Catholic for the federal bench?” Donohue asked in a separate letter to Durbin. “If so, please share the information with me. If not, try treating Catholics — especially Orthodox ones — as equals.”
At the hearing, Barrett responded to the senators’ inquiries. “It is never appropriate for a judge to apply their personal convictions, whether it derives from faith or personal conviction,” she said at one point.
Feinstein or Durbin have not yet publicly reacted to the outcry their questions have elicited.