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Sizing up the new nominee

Some anti-abortion advocates and other conservative groups are bitterly disappointed with the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the U.S. Supreme Court, while groups interested in women's rights and separation of church and state are cautiously optimistic about the choice.

Ginsburg, 60, a pioneer in the feminist legal reform movement and currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, was appointed to the high court by President Clinton on Monday.

Her appointment was denounced this week by religious-based conservative groups, who blasted the nominee's support for abortion rights and opposition to "pro-family" values.

"Judge Ginsburg authored a key decision that has led to the pollution of our homes with indecent television and radio programing," said the Rev. Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association.

Wildmon criticized Ginsburg for a 1988 decision she wrote in a case involving Federal Communications Commission rules involving TV programing.

Anti-abortion groups were also sharply critical of Ginsburg.

"President Clinton has kept his political promise to bring the abortion litmus test into the highest court in the nation by appointing Ginsburg," said Paige Cunningham of Americans United for Life.

Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, said Ginsburg's work over the past 20 years has "helped create a society where . . . 30-million daughters and sons have been denied the chance she has had to achieve because they were legally killed by abortion."

Other abortion opponents, however, were less harsh.

"While she has a history of supporting abortion rights, there's an indication that she has some very serious questions about the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling," said Jay Sekulow, head of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice. "We're optimistic that she will approach the abortion issue with an open mind."

Church-state watchers stressed Ginsburg's reputation as a moderate consensus builder and her record on the Bill of Rights.

"Judge Ginsburg appears to have an expansive view of the Bill of Rights and a keen interest in protecting individual liberties," said J. Brent Walker, associate general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee.

"But she's not a knee-jerk ideologue. She is balanced and fair," he said.

"She has not hesitated to hold government accountable when it seeks to deny someone's free exercise of religion," he added. "Her Jewish heritage probably heightens her sensitivity in that regard."

Ginsburg is best known for her advocacy of women's rights. During the 1970s, before her appointment to the federal court by President Jimmy Carter, she argued six women's rights cases before the court and won five of them.

On church-state issues, her most noted case was a free exercise dispute in which she wrote a sharp dissent, defending an army officer's right to wear a yarmulke.

She said the order that the officer not be allowed to wear the yarmulke showed a "callous indifference" to the officer's religious faith and "runs counter to the best of our traditions to accommodate the public service to the spiritual needs of our people."

Steven Green, counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said his group's preliminary review of Ginsburg's writing "gives us hope. We're very positive."

"She has been cautious in her writing," he said. "We believe there may be a sensitivity to church-state concerns, especially in the free exercise area."

On the bench, Ginsburg will replace the retiring Justice Byron White, whom most religious liberty activists consider hostile to separation of church and state.

"Considering the justice she is replacing, you can only go up," said Samuel Rabinove, the American Jewish Committee's top lawyer.

Rabinove said that although the AJC does not endorse or oppose nominees, "I can say, unofficially, we think she's a very good choice."

Preliminary comments by secular legal experts and court watchers suggested that Ginsburg would join and strengthen the emerging moderate middle of the court, aligning herself on a number of key issues with Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter and Anthony Kennedy.

At the same time, although some feminists expressed concern because of her reservations on the reasoning used in Roe vs. Wade, she has been hailed as the Thurgood Marshall of the women's rights movement.

During the 1970s, when she did much of her work on women's issue, she served as pro bono general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project.