When some of us on the left learned that Judge John G. Roberts, Jr., President Bush's nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, is a Catholic, our first reaction was a deep groan. It wasn't that we have anything against Catholics, but that we could already picture a likely scenario from the upcoming confirmation hearings: A Democratic senator declares dissatisfaction with Roberts' views on abortion; conservatives take to the airwaves to proclaim that Roberts' pro-life beliefs are deeply informed by his Catholicism; and suddenly, Democrats find themselves starring in "Liberals are Anti-Catholic Bigots: The Sequel."

We didn't have to wait long.

Not 24 hours had passed after Bush introduced Roberts to the world before conservatives played the Catholic card. In a move that could charitably be called a preemptive strike and more accurately called a political maneuver, Catholic League president Bill Donohue told Religion News Service that "Any scratching around this area would suggest that there's a veiled religious test by asking questions about his deeply held views." "Our antennaes will be up on that," he warned. In the same story, longtime Roberts associate and Washington attorney Shannen Coffin said he was concerned about "an anti-Catholic witch hunt." And now Beliefnet's own Charlotte Allen is pushing the argument that any Democratic skepticism of Roberts is ipso facto opposition to his views on abortion, which is ipso facto opposition to his Catholicism.*

It's time for this malicious mischief to stop. Democrats are not the ones who have consistently made religious beliefs a political issue. It was conservatives who spent much of last year arguing that John Kerry's religious beliefs were insufficiently reflected in his position on abortion. It was Antonin Scalia, Roberts' potential Catholic colleague on the bench, who said in 2002 that a judge whose religious beliefs conflicted with "duly enacted constitutional law" was obligated to resign from the bench (he was referring to capital punishment). And it is Republicans who have insisted that religious beliefs are part of an individual's qualifications for office, making the not-so-subtle case that George "Man of Faith" W. Bush should be reelected precisely because of his spiritual credentials.

So it is outrageous for conservatives to argue that Democrats, by virtue of concerns about whether Roberts would uphold Roe v. Wade, are injecting religion into the confirmation process. Accusing those who disagree with them of harboring religious bias is no more becoming or compelling for conservatives than it is when liberals lodge the same charges with race. What's more, it sullies the process from the very beginning for no good reason. It is clear to everyone, even at this early stage, that Roberts is not William Pryor, the controversial Alabama judge whose confirmation hearings in 2003 first prompted Republicans to hurl the anti-Catholic accusation. (Absurdly, Catholic senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin were the primary targets of the charge.) Democrats do not appear inclined to go to the mattresses over Roberts. So why did Donahue and crew rush to pick a fight?

The answer is simple. They see an opportunity to score easy political points against Democrats. Their operating principle seems to be that just because your enemy hasn't done anything wrong doesn't mean you can't accuse them of impropriety. This is all a warm-up act to Justice Sunday 2, scheduled for mid-August, when the Catholic League's Bill Donohue will no doubt use his featured speaking slot to inveigh against the liberal war on faith.

This kind of offensive religion-baiting is almost not worth attention. (Aside from the tempting Democratic riposte: "Yeah, we're so anti-Catholic, we picked a Catholic as our presidential nominee last year. So we're bigots and morons.") But if recent history is any indication, reporters and producers will give the conservatives talking point legitimacy by featuring Donohue in their articles and running segments such as, "Are Democrats anti-Catholic?" So it's up to Democrats to once again patiently explain that "religious" does not equal "conservative," that opposition to conservative ideology does not equal opposition to religion, and that to believe otherwise is to fall for a political ploy.

Near the end of his introduction of Roberts, President Bush directed a pointed warning to Democrats, referring to his hopes for "a dignified confirmation process that is conducted with fairness and civility." Instead, it is his political comrades who needed the reminder. By trying to bully Democrats into silence on Roberts, they make a mockery of our proud tradition of political debate and they dishonor the memories of those who have suffered true religious persecution throughout the centuries.

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