Neil Gorsuch gained confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court on April 7, a day after a rules change in the deeply divided Senate made his approval possible.
The Senate voted 54-45 to confirm Gorsuch, filling a seat on the high court that had remained vacant since the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia nearly 14 months ago. The ascendancy of President Trump's first nominee to the Supreme Court occurred after the Republican majority voted to alter Senate rules to overcome a Democratic filibuster committed to blocking the federal appeals court judge from confirmation.
Religious liberty and pro-life advocates were among those who commended the Senate's approval of Gorsuch, a judge for the last 10 years on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. As was true with Scalia, Gorsuch, 49, possesses a judicial philosophy and record of interpreting the Constitution based on its original meaning and the laws based on their text.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called Gorsuch's confirmation "good news."
"I am confident he will protect the Bill of Rights, especially our First Freedom of religious liberty," Moore said in an ERLC news release. "Judge Gorsuch's judicial record, statements in confirmation hearings, and his reputation for brilliance and integrity all commend him to sit on the nation's highest court. I pray that he will serve for decades with principled commitment to the Founders' vision of natural rights and ordered liberty."
Michael Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, described Gorsuch as "a natural successor to Justice Scalia."
"ADF hopes that he will continue to interpret the Constitution as our founders intended and affirm our most fundamental freedom—religious liberty, which includes the right not to be discriminated against because of one's religion," Farris said in a written statement.
Carol Tobias, the National Right to Life Committee's president, said in a written release: "All too often, our efforts to protect unborn children and other vulnerable humans have been overridden by judges who believe they have a right to impose their own policy preferences. Judge Gorsuch appears to believe that judges are constrained to enforce the text and original intent of constitutional provisions, and on all other matters should defer to democratically elected lawmakers—this heartens us, and alarms those who have relied on activist judges to impose their radical pro-abortion policies."
Gorsuch's confirmation received criticism from liberals, including abortion- and gay-rights organizations and advocates for strict separation of church and state.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-choice America, described him as "the most far-right Supreme Court nominee in a generation, handpicked by Donald Trump to help fulfill his campaign promise of overturning" the 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion legalizing abortion.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a written release the new justice "has demonstrated that he does not respect the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, which is the foundation of religious freedom in America. I am gravely concerned he'll vote to erode that principle and put one of our nation's most essential liberties at risk."
In floor action on April 6, Gorsuch's supporters fell five votes short of the 60 needed under Senate rules to halt a filibuster and bring his nomination to the floor. Republicans then invoked what has been labeled the "nuclear option" in a 52-48, party-line vote to change the longstanding rule for ending debate on a Supreme Court nominee from a requirement of 60 votes to 51.
After the vote to revise the rules, the Senate invoked cloture, thereby setting a limit on debate to shut down the filibuster.
Joining the Republicans in supporting cloture and Gorsuch's confirmation were three Democrats: Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The only senator not to participate in the April 7 confirmation vote was Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who is recovering from surgery.
As a forerunner to the Republicans' rules change for Supreme Court nominees, the Democrats—then in the majority—used the "nuclear option" in 2013 to reduce to 51 the number of senators required to confirm judicial nominees below the Supreme Court level and executive branch appointees.
The partisan duel over Gorsuch was the latest in a contentious, three-decades-long battle over Supreme Court nominees.
GOP members described Gorsuch as a highly qualified candidate who refuses to act as a legislator, instead ruling on the basis of a faithful adherence to the Constitution and law. Democrats criticized Gorsuch for refusing to answer their questions about past Supreme Court opinions during his Judiciary Committee hearings and charged him with favoring the powerful in his rulings. They also criticized the Republicans' refusal last year to consider President Obama's nominee to replace Scalia—Merrick Garland of the District of Columbia Circuit Court.
During his time on the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch agreed with others on the court the Obama administration's abortion/contraception mandate violated the free exercise of religion rights of Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor among other religious groups.
Gorsuch, whose confirmation returns the high court to its normal nine-member makeup, will soon have an opportunity to rule in an important religious liberty case. The justices will hear oral arguments April 19 regarding a Missouri government decision barring a church daycare from participating in a state playground resurfacing program.
Although he has not ruled on abortion, Gorsuch wrote the book "The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia" in 2006—before becoming a judge—that argues against legalization of the end-of-life practices. Based on his judicial philosophy, however, Gorsuch has pledged to apply the law rather than his beliefs.
The ERLC sponsored a letter Feb. 1 in which more than 50 Southern Baptist and other evangelical leaders called for confirmation of Gorsuch. The signers said they believe Gorsuch's judicial philosophy meets the thresholds of their "core social principles." Those precepts include in the Supreme Court's purview "the protection of the unborn, the strengthening of religious liberty, and a dedication to human flourishing—which we believe can only be accomplished by a biblical definition of marriage and family," they said.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.