On Gorsuch, it's evangelicals vs. atheists

SCOTUS Pick Gorsuch Zelany NewDay_00001803
SCOTUS Pick Gorsuch Zelany NewDay_00001803

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  • Gorsuch hailed by some as the second coming of Justice Antonin Scalia
  • Trump nomination keeps campaign promise made to white evangelicals

Washington (CNN)Several days before President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, he predicted that "evangelicals, Christians will love my pick."

If early reaction holds, Trump's hunch rings true.
    In the hours since Gorsuch's nomination was announced, dozens of conservative Christians have hailed the judge as the second coming of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a favorite figure of the religious right for decades. Scalia died last February, and his seat has since been open.
    Russell Moore, who leads the ethics and public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, called Gorsuch a "brilliant and articulate defender of constitutional originalism."
    "His career is one that exemplifies the very best of intellectually robust conservatism, judicial restraint and faithfulness to the Constitution," said Moore, whose denomination has some 17 million members.
    In nominating Gorsuch, Trump fulfills a campaign promise to a powerful voting bloc, white evangelicals, a whopping 81% of whom voted for him. Overall, white evangelicals composed 26% of the electorate in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.
    Gorsuch, who attends an Episcopal church, has been on the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit since 2006, when he was nominated by then-President George W. Bush. In his acceptance speech on Tuesday, the judge said his faith and his family "are the things that keep me grounded at life's peaks and have sustained me in its valleys."
    If conservative Christians praised the judge, particularly for his opinions on two religious freedom cases, atheists just as quickly condemned him. Both non-believers and evangelicals view the Supreme Court as essential to their political future, and the early clash between two of the country's largest religious groups forebodes a fierce battle over Gorsuch's Senate confirmation.
    "Now more than ever we need a Supreme Court that will courageously uphold our foundational rights, not return us to a time of greater Christian privilege," said Robyn Blumner, head of Center for Inquiry, a humanist group headquartered in New York. "There is little evidence that Judge Gorsuch is up to this crucial task."
    Though non-religious Americans are not nearly as politically organized or ideologically united as evangelicals, they comprise a large and growing swath of the population. Nearly 1 in 4 of American adults is a "none," as in "no religious affiliation," and some say they have been galvanized by Trump's election.
    Since November 8, hundreds of first-time donors have contributed to the Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group that represents 19 secular and atheist groups, said Larry Decker, the coalition's president. Annual donors have increased the size of their gifts as well.
    "The Supreme Court is extremely important to the secular community in America, and we are extremely concerned about this nominee," said Decker. "We are going to lobby as hard as we can and activate our grassroots network."

    A 'premium on life'

    Many evangelicals voted for Trump precisely because of the Supreme Court, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois.
    In a Christianity Today article, 70% of white evangelical voters said the Supreme Court appointment was a top election concern, Stetzer wrote in a column. "The Supreme Court nomination is a critical position to fill in light of the changing political and societal changes we have been facing."
    Other scholars have contested that argument, citing a 2016 LifeWay Research poll in which only 10% of white evangelicals listed Supreme Court nominees as their top issue when voting for president. Nearly half said improving the economy or national security was their top issue.
    In any case, conservative Christians were clearly thrilled on Tuesday night, when Trump announced Gorsuch's nomination.
    James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, an evangelical media ministry, said he was "greatly encouraged" by Trump's choice for the Supreme Court. The Rev. David Jeremiah, senior pastor of the Shadow Mountain Community Church in California, called Gorsuch a "reliable conservative." Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said the nominee will "put a premium on our two most important rights: the right to life, from fertilization to natural death, and religious liberty for all."
    Even fierce Trump critics praised his Supreme Court pick.
    "There's no question that, for evangelical Christians, the Supreme Court nomination and all the issues that flow from the Supreme Court, were the most important reasons to support Trump," said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an evangelical who vociferously opposed Trump. "And Gorsuch is an outstanding pick."

    Gorsuch's religious record

    For conservative Christians, the most important cases in Gorsuch's judicial record concern religious freedom, an area they believe is under attack in a rapidly secularizing country.
    In Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius, Gorsuch held that a company's rights to religious freedom trump the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. That is, business owners who have sincere religious objections to contraception do not have to offer cost-free coverage to employees. The Supreme Court agreed, extending the concept of religious freedom for the first time from individuals to corporations.
    In a related case, Gorsuch sided with Catholic nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who also objected to the contraception mandate, as well as the means the Obama administration offered to gain an exemption from it.
    And while he has not ruled directly on abortion, Gorsuch has argued in favor of allowing a state to block funding of Planned Parenthood and written a book arguing against the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
    Those arguments make many atheists nervous about Gorsuch.
    "He has favored religious institutions over individuals," said Decker, referring to the Hobby Lobby case. Secularists are also wary of government interference in the "right to die," and have celebrated recent laws, like one passed in Washington last year, that allow terminally ill people to hasten their deaths.
    In opposing Gorsuch, Decker said, atheists will be reaching out to secular and religious groups with similar concerns. Already, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a liberal New York seminary have expressed doubts about the Supreme Court nominee.