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Churches weigh in on court nomination

In the hubbub over Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s confirmation hearings for the US Supreme Court, the high court's justices weren't the only interested parties wearing robes. Some clergy members and religious groups took stands on whether Alito should be confirmed, including unprecedented activism by the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association.

Before this week's hearings opened, the UUA urged the Senate to reject Alito, the first time it has stated an opinion about a nominee for the Court. (The church had opposed some recent candidates for lower federal courts.) The UUA followed up by submitting, in conjunction with other religious groups, a list of questions on religious liberty for the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider in grilling Alito, says Rob Keithan, director of the UUA's Washington advocacy office.

The liberal-leaning UUA's membership is tiny. But Keithan notes that the Union for Reformed Judaism -- the largest Jewish group in North America, with more than 900 member congregations -- also came out against the nomination. Other clergy groups, including Alito's own Catholic Church, reiterated their principles for judges while declining to weigh in on the nomination.

At a time when churches' pronouncements on politics and politicians have caused consternation from some quarters, Keithan says his denomination's stand is partly in reaction to conservative churches advocating for judges who oppose abortion and gay marriage. ''The fundamentalist religious right had made court-stacking a priority," he says.

The Internal Revenue Service allows lobbying by churches and other tax-exempt groups as long as the political activity is not a substantial part of a group's work.

The awkward relationship between religion and politics also emerged in the 2004 presidential election. A handful of Catholic bishops deemed Senator John F. Kerry unfit to receive Communion because of his support for abortion rights. Critics also objected to some African-American ministers endorsing Democratic candidates from the pulpit.

President Bush cited religiosity in vouching for his doomed, pre-Alito nominee, Harriet Miers. The nominations by Bush, a born-again Christian, of two Catholics -- Alito and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. -- have drawn media scrutiny. Alito, if confirmed, would give the high court its first-ever Catholic majority.

''[T]he emergence of the court's Catholic bloc," a New Republic magazine columnist wrote recently, ''reflects the reality of social conservatism: Evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft."

It was fear of conservative judicial decisions that spurred the UUA's 2004 General Assembly -- the policy-setting conclave of delegates from member congregations -- to declare that the church would oppose federal court nominees ''whose records demonstrate insensitivity to the protection of civil liberties."

Regarding Alito in particular, the UUA says it is concerned by his rulings to require women to notify their husbands before they get an abortion and to allow religious holiday symbols, such as crèches and menorahs, to be displayed on public property if secular decorations are displayed alongside.

Other churches avoid, or are outright hostile to, the UUA's brand of activism. When Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement last summer, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote President Bush about desirable qualities in a court nominee. Bishop William S. Skylstad pointedly noted that the bishops conference would not engage in ''endorsing or opposing specific nominees."

''Our concern is for principles and policies rather than for personalities," he wrote. Those principles, he continued, should include, ''preeminently, support [for] the protection of human life from conception to natural death, especially of those who are unborn, disabled, or terminally ill."

Skylstad also urged Bush to nominate someone who would support the rights of ''minorities, immigrants, and those in need;" respect ''the role of religion and of religious institutions in our society and the protections afforded them by the First Amendment;" endorse school choice; and rein in use of capital punishment.

The bishop of the Boston-headquartered New England diocese of the Orthodox Church of America takes an even dimmer view of churches lobbying over specific nominees. ''I do not feel it's an appropriate role," Bishop Nikon Liolin said in a recent interview.

This should not be mistaken for lack of passion about the day's great moral issues, he says. ''I took part in the [anti-abortion] march. I probably will this year."

But, Liolin says, ''I really do not feel that we can regulate morality by political appointments. The morality has to be from the individual, not whatever the government says or whatever we approve or not approve."

The UUA's Keithan, however, argues that the denomination's stand respects appropriate boundaries between faith and politics. ''We're not claiming," he says, ''that supporting Alito means you hate God."

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