Neil Gorsuch Defends Religious Liberty Ruling In Confirmation Hearings

Judge Neil Gorsuch (center) arrives at the Hart Office Building to answer question from members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, March 21.
Screen capture from C-Span

Neil Gorsuch steadfastly refused to provide judge-like commentary on such issues as abortion and assisted suicide in his confirmation hearings but was not reluctant to explain his ruling in a vital religious liberty case.

President Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court answered questions about his role in supporting the free exercise of religion rights of Hobby Lobby Tuesday (March 21) as a member of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Gorsuch responded to questions about the religious liberty case from both Democrats and Republicans during 10 hours of questioning by the 20 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Gorsuch — who has served on the 10th Circuit Court for more than 10 years — freely offered his view of an opinion he participated in. He declined, however, several opportunities to comment on issues, including abortion and physician-assisted suicide, he has yet to rule on and may appear in cases before him in the future.

On April 3, the Judiciary Committee is expected to send Gorsuch’s nomination to the full Senate, where the central question would appear to be whether Republicans have enough votes to overcome an expected Democratic filibuster. The GOP majority has 52 members, but 60 votes are required to halt a filibuster and vote on confirmation. If the GOP falls short, it can hold a vote to change the rules and confirm Gorsuch by a simple majority.

The 10th Circuit Court, with Gorsuch writing a concurring opinion in the majority, ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in 2013 in the arts and crafts chain’s challenge to the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate. The mandate required employers to provide coverage for contraceptives that can potentially cause abortions. The next year, the Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court opinion, upholding objections by “closely held,” for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby, which is owned by the Green family.

In response to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Gorsuch agreed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 federal law at the heart of the case, protects individuals with minority religious beliefs as much as for-profit corporations owned by evangelical Christians.

RFRA — which requires the government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening a person’s religious exercise — also “applies to Little Sisters of the Poor [a Roman Catholic order of nuns that serves the needy] and protects their religious exercise,” Gorsuch said.

In addition, the 10th Circuit “held [RFRA] applied to a Muslim prisoner in Oklahoma who was denied a halal meal,” Gorsuch told Hatch. “It’s also the same law that protects the rights of a Native American prisoner who was denied access to his prison sweat lodge, it appeared, solely because of a crime he committed, and it was a heinous crime. But it protects him too. I wrote the [opinion in the] Native American prisoner case and wrote a concurrence in the Muslim case.”

President Clinton signed RFRA into law after a broad coalition of religious freedom advocates — including the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, now the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) — pushed for the measure in response to a heavily criticized Supreme Court decision and following nearly unanimous approval by Congress.

Steven Harris, the ERLC’s director of advocacy, told Baptist Press, “Judge Gorsuch has consistently demonstrated a robust and insightful understanding of religious liberty in America.

“Throughout his comments during confirmation hearings, I was encouraged by his willingness to address the issue head-on,” Harris said in written comments, “and I believe that such is indicative of his commitment to the laws of religious liberty that undergird our democracy.”

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
Tom Strode

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