WASHINGTON — President Bush indicated Wednesday that Harriet E. Miers' religious beliefs were one reason he nominated her to the Supreme Court -- comments that drew quick criticism from liberal groups, which said religion should not be considered a qualification to sit on the nation's highest bench.
Bush's remarks came on the same day that Christian leader James C. Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, told his radio show listeners that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove had assured him before the announcement of Miers' selection that she was a committed evangelical Christian.
"People ask me why I picked Harriet Miers," Bush said when reporters asked about those assurances. "They want to know Harriet Miers' background. They want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. And part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion. Part of it has to do with the fact that she was a pioneer woman and a trailblazer in the law in Texas."
Bush previously has stressed his knowledge of her character, but this was the first time he publicly referred to her faith when asked about picking her.
His comment about Miers as a trailblazer refers to her being the first woman to head a major law firm in Dallas and the first woman to be elected president of the Texas state bar.
After Bush's comments Wednesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan did not answer directly when asked if Miers' religion played "no role at all" in Bush's decision.
He responded: "That's part of who she is. That's part of her background. That's what the president was talking about in his remarks in the Oval Office."
McClellan added: "Faith is very important to Harriet Miers. But she recognizes that faith and that her religion and that her personal views don't have a role to play when it comes to making decisions."
Liberal groups, which have taken a low profile since the nomination was announced, noted that White House officials took issue with Democratic senators who wanted to discuss John G. Roberts' religious beliefs during his recent confirmation process to be chief justice. Roberts is Roman Catholic.
"We were told we weren't even allowed to bring up the topic of religion when John G. Roberts was nominated for the Supreme Court," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement. "Anyone who did was quickly labeled a bigot. Now Bush and Rove are touting where Miers goes to church and using that as a selling point. The hypocrisy is staggering."
Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal group People for the American Way, cited Article 6 of the Constitution, which states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust."
"The president and his people are using repeated assurances about Miers' religion to send not-so-subtle messages about how she might rule on the court on issues important to the president's political supporters," Neas said. "It's a shabby ploy unworthy of the debate over a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court."
Kermit Hall, president of the State University of New York at Albany and editor of the "Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States," said it was unusual for a president to emphasize the religious beliefs or affiliation of a nominee to the Supreme Court.
Since President Wilson named Louis Brandeis to the high court, "tacitly there has been some understanding that we should have some Jewish representation on the court, just as nowadays there is some representation of gender and African American background," Hall said. "But I cannot think of any president who has ever made a nomination because of the religious beliefs that a person held."
Miers' nomination has aroused little enthusiasm among some of Bush's core supporters, who had hoped the president would rely on GOP control of the Senate to pick a conservative with a well-known legal record. Miers, a Bush aide for several years who now serves as White House counsel, has never been a judge.
"There are three categories of conservatives: those who are opposing her, those in favor and those taking a wait-and-see approach," said Tony Perkins, president of the influential Family Research Council, in an interview. "By far the largest category is the last one."
White House officials have asked Perkins and other undecided conservatives to make up their minds after the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings on Miers' nomination. The officials note that Miers is little-known outside the White House, and they say that the more Republicans learn about her, the more they will like her.
"Harriet Miers is not someone who has sought the limelight. So there are a lot of Americans who are just beginning to get to know who she is," McClellan told reporters. "And we're confident that, as they do, they will see what the president has known for some time now -- which is that she will make an outstanding Supreme Court justice."