'Rebels without a clause': 10 times Dem. senators questioned Trump nominees' religious beliefs  

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., asks CIA Director Mike Pompeo questions about his beliefs during a Senate Confirmation Hearing, April 12, 2018.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., asks CIA Director Mike Pompeo questions about his beliefs during a Senate Confirmation Hearing, April 12, 2018. | (Screenshot: NBC News)

One of the nation’s leading Christian conservative advocacy organizations has called out 12 senators who have employed “unconstitutional religious tests” on Trump nominees in the past two years.

Since the Trump administration came into power in 2017, a noticeable trend has occurred in which Democrat senators have questioned Trump judicial and political nominees about their religious beliefs and religious affiliations as to suggest that such beliefs and affiliations should disqualify them for public office.

The Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council released on Wednesday a new publication that documents 10 incidents over the past two years in which senators have interrogated nominees concerning their personal religious beliefs even though Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that there shall be no religious test for public office.

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The document was written by Alexandra McPhee, the director of religious freedom advocacy at Family Research Council.

“It is important to distinguish what questions should generally be considered appropriate or inappropriate,” the document “Rebels Without a Clause: When Senators Run Roughshod Over the ‘No Religious Test’ Clause of the U.S. Constitution” explains.  “For instance, ‘[m]erely asking a nominee whether their beliefs might stop them from fulfilling their Constitutional duties is a relevant question.’ But ‘[r]ejecting someone over their faith alone is unquestionably a religious test.’”

The document stresses that a senator should not deem a nominee “fit or unfit according to his or her formal affiliation with one religious group or another.”

“And as Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) explained, ‘asking [a] nominee about the particulars of his or her religious beliefs’ is inappropriate because it will ‘inevitably expose those beliefs as somehow a qualifier or a disqualifier for public office,” McPhee wrote.

Neomi Rao

Earlier this month, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a candidate for president in 2020, questioned Trump judicial nominee Neomi Rao, who currently serves as the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, during a confirmation hearing.

“Do you believe gay relationships are a sin?” Booker asked the nominee selected to replace Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. appellate court.

Rao responded by saying: “Senator, my personal views on any of these subjects are things that I would put to one side and I would faithfully follow [the precedence of the Supreme Court].”

“Senator Booker suggested this was an appropriate line of questioning because ‘religion [has been] used as a ruse to discriminate against African Americans,” the FRC document explains.

Booker’s question came during his line of questioning about Rao’s previous writings on past court rulings that favored gay marriage.

William Barr

Trump’s nominee to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general, William Barr, who served as attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration, was questioned by Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in January.

Whitehouse brought up a 1992 speech in which, according to Whitehouse, Barr “blamed secularism for virtually every contemporary societal problem.”

“Relying on this characterization, Senator Whitehouse asked, ‘About a quarter of American adults today are not religious. Do you still think that those Americans are responsible for virtually every contemporary societal problem? If not, what changed your mind?’” the FRC document explains.

“Senator Whitehouse concluded, stating, ‘Given your stated views on the evils of secularism, what commitments will you make to ensure that non-religious career attorneys and staff at the Department are protected against disparate treatment on the basis of their secularism?’”

Barr responded by saying that the reports that Whitehouse quoted took “substantial parts of my speech out of context and are inaccurate.”

“Contemporary societal problems are complex and caused by many factors,” Barr responded. “I have never claimed that societal problems are caused by specific individuals or specific classes of individuals.”

Barr was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday.

Paul Matey and Brian Buescher

In November of last year, two Trump nominees faced questioning about their affiliation to the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus.

Although the organization does great charity work to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people, Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who is also running for president in 2020, questioned nominees Paul Matey and Brian Buescher about their membership with the Knights.

Her objection was the fact that the organization, in staying true to Catholic beliefs, opposes abortion and gay marriage.

Additionally, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii asked if the nominees' membership in the Knights of Columbus would allow them to “deal with reproductive rights and abortion issues fairly and impartially.”

“She questioned whether Judge Buescher and Matey would end their memberships with [Knights] ‘to avoid any appearance of bias,’” the FRC document explains.  “In addition, Senator Hirono asked Judge Buescher and Matey whether they ‘believe[d] federal funds should not be given to [those] providers who support abortion services.’ Senator Hirono also asked each nominee about the health value of contraceptives and ‘what steps’ each took ‘to make clear that [they did] not hold [those] views’ reflected in statements by the Knights of Columbus.”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at the Center for American Progress' 2014 Making Progress Policy Conference in Washington November 19, 2014.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at the Center for American Progress' 2014 Making Progress Policy Conference in Washington November 19, 2014. | (Photo: Reuters/Gary Cameron)

Allison Rushing

Allison Rushing, a nominee for the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, was questioned last October by several senators about her participation in programs led by the conservative religious freedom legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom.

Although ADF has won nine Supreme Court cases in the last seven years, Sens. Whitehouse, Hirono, Booker, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Chris Coons, and Richard Blumenthal all questioned her about her affiliation with the group.

“Senator Hirono questioned Rushing’s ability to render decisions impartially or fairly in cases involving the court-created right to abortion or involving litigants that identify as homosexual or transgender because of Rushing’s internship and speaking engagements with ADF,” McPhee detailed. “Senator Blumenthal asked, ‘Would you perform a same-sex wedding if asked to do so?’ In questions related to ADF, Senators Whitehouse, Coons, Blumenthal, Hirono, and Booker relied on the characterization by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a progressive activist group that frequently defames ideological opponents.”

The SPLC lists ADF and several other Christian conservative organizations as “hate groups” because of their stances on sexuality and gay marriage. SPLC has faced defamation lawsuits because of the “hate group” labeling.

“In questions related to a separate speaking engagement, Senator Whitehouse asked, ‘In your view, are Judeo-Christian morality and homosexuality incompatible?’” the FRC report explains.  “Senator Harris also asked Rushing whether she believed ‘that LGBT rights cannot be reconciled with religion.’”

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