Two Republican congressmen seeking to unseat Sen. Joe Donnelly have criticized his response to fellow Democratic senators’ questioning of an Indiana judicial nominee that focused on her Catholic faith.
Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, both candidates in Indiana's GOP Senate primary, say statements made last week by Democratic senators, including Dianne Feinstein of California, amounted to anti-Catholic religious “bigotry.”
Democrats and some Republicans grilled Amy Coney Barrett, a Notre Dame law professor who is one of President Donald Trump's judicial nominees. She was recommended for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit by Indiana Sen. Todd Young, a Republican.
The Democrats’ remarks honed in on whether Barrett’s personal views as a Catholic would override her legal judgment, especially on the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
At one point, Feinstein told Barrett that dogma and law are two different things and she was concerned “that the dogma lives loudly within you.”
Messer and Rokita seized on the remarks to try to tar Donnelly.
“Senator Donnelly needs to defend this highly qualified Hoosier nominee,” Messer said in a statement Wednesday. He called on Donnelly to “denounce the Senators who would disqualify (Barrett) based on deeply held religious beliefs and denounce their anti-Catholic bigotry.”
Rokita, who is Catholic, also labeled it “bigotry,” stating that a judge “cannot be disqualified because of his or her religious beliefs.”
Donnelly attended Notre Dame and previously represented a congressional district that included the university. In a statement, he said he would have “steered clear of lines of questioning that seemed to focus on Professor Barrett’s faith.” He also supports Barrett’s nomination and previously interviewed her about “her qualifications, and understanding of the law.”
“I’m a Catholic — my faith has always been an important part of my life — and I believe someone can be a person of faith and at the same time uphold the law and our Constitution on the federal bench,” Donnelly said.
The Republicans’ attacks on Donnelly come after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the challenge to Barrett a painful reminder of a time when “anti-Catholic bigotry did distort our laws and civil order.”
Catholic leaders have also argued that the focus on Barrett’s faith runs counter to the Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests for political office.
A key focus of the hearing was a 1998 law review article titled “Catholic Judges in Capital Cases.” In the article, Barrett and John H. Garvey said Catholic judges are obliged to adhere to their church’s teaching on moral matters and the legal system has a solution for this dilemma by allowing judges to recuse themselves when beliefs keep them from doing their job.
Feinstein said this week that she would never apply a religious litmus test to a nominee, but “senators must inquire about these issues when considering lifetime appointments because ensuring impartiality and fidelity to precedent are critical for the rule of law.” Notre Dame President, the Rev. John Jenkins, expressed “deep concern” over Barrett’s questioning by Feinstein and other senators.