WASHINGTON – The Senate will vote today whether to confirm William H. Pryor Jr. to a federal appeals court, the latest in a series of President Bush’s judicial nominees whose views on abortion and the government’s regulatory powers have drawn near-unanimous resistance from Democrats.

Liberal groups oppose Pryor’s confirmation, citing his strong views against abortion and gay rights. In his home state of Alabama, he also draws opposition from religious conservatives, who accuse him of abandoning their side in a dispute over the public display of the Ten Commandments.

On Wednesday the Senate confirmed, by 56-43, the controversial nomination of California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The only Democrat who supported Brown was Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

The Senate then voted 67-32 to clear the way for a final vote today on Pryor’s confirmation for a seat on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta.

What distinguishes Pryor from Bush’s other controversial judicial nominees is his place at the center of a political clash over the role of religion and faith in federal courts. Bush caused an uproar among Democrats last year when he sidestepped the Senate while it was in recess and appointed Pryor temporarily to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pryor, a devout Catholic, is an outspoken critic of abortion. In speeches and congressional testimony, he’s called the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion “the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law,” which has “led to the slaughter of millions of innocent unborn children.”

In a 1997 commencement speech to a Catholic high school, Pryor said: “The challenge of the next millennium will be to preserve the American experiment by restoring its Christian perspective.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., argued during Pryor’s confirmation hearing two years ago that Pryor’s beliefs are “so deeply held that it is very hard to believe . . . that they are not going to deeply influence the way he comes about saying, “I will follow the law.”‘

Conservatives said Schumer had set a new religious-belief standard for judging candidates for the federal bench. Christian conservatives said Democrats didn’t want people of faith to serve in the courts.

With Pryor’s confirmation looming, the debate over religion has turned into a rhetorical brawl. Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean stepped into the fray Monday, calling Republicans “pretty much a white, Christian party.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ridiculed Dean’s remarks Wednesday. “If I didn’t know how bright he was, I’d call him a raving idiot,” Hatch said on the Senate floor.

While liberal lobbying groups in Washington and Senate Democrats portray Pryor as a threat to the separation of church and state, religious conservatives in Alabama have mounted a campaign against him for enforcing the withdrawal of a Ten Commandments display from the state court building.

As Alabama’s attorney general, Pryor initially supported Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s efforts to showcase the Ten Commandments. But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court on which Pryor now sits, ordered Moore to remove it.

Pryor enforced the order, then oversaw Moore’s removal as chief justice.

“At that point, he did what he had to do as an elected official and enforce the law,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who’s studied Bush’s judicial nominations. “It was to his credit, but it would have been extraordinary to have defied that order.”

As attorney general, Pryor also angered gay-rights groups by filing a friend of the court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Texas’ sodomy law.

In the brief, he wrote that “A constitutional right that protects “the choice of one’s partner’ and “whether and how to connect sexually’ must logically extend to activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia (if the child should credibly claim to be “willing’).”

Pryor’s nomination has the support of black political leaders in Alabama, including that of Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, the only black in the Alabama congressional delegation.

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