SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch focused his questions to Judge Neil Gorsuch on religious freedom Wednesday on the third day of confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
The Utah Republican noted that Gorsuch cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in his concurring opinion in the Hobby Lobby case in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Gorsuch voted in favor of the ability of the Hobby Lobby craft stores to assert religious objections to paying for contraception for women covered under their health plans in the contentious case.
Hatch quoted Gorsuch's opinion on the act, saying "it does perhaps its most important work in protecting unpopular religious beliefs, vindicating this nation’s long-standing aspiration to serve as a refuge of religious tolerance."
"Is it fair to say that the court's decision in Hobby Lobby and your concurring opinion upheld this purpose and, in doing so, actually defended the unpopular and promoted religious tolerance?" asked Hatch, who wrote the 1993 religious freedom restoration law.
Gorsuch said the law protects religious exercise and offered examples from other cases where he has been involved.
"It applied to a Muslim prisoner in Oklahoma who was denied a halal meal. It’s also the same law that protects the rights of a Native American prisoner who was denied access to his prison sweat lodge it appeared solely in retribution for a crime that he committed and it was a heinous crime. But it protects him, too," he said.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also questioned Gorsuch on Wednesday after making a speech about upholding the independence of the federal court system. He said some of his colleagues are frustrated that Gorsuch hasn't revealed more about where he stands on certain issues.
Lee asked Gorsuch if he would face recusal from a case if he committed during the hearings to how he would rule on a certain issue.
Gorsuch agreed he would face being removed and that litigants could question his fairness if that issue were to come before him in court.
"To be honest senator, I don't know how I would look them in the eye," Gorsuch said, adding it would be the same if he were confirmed to the Supreme Court or goes back to the appeals court in Colorado.
On Tuesday, Hatch asked Gorsuch about the proper role of judges.
"I believe in the rule of law in the country, and I believe an independent judiciary is one of the keys to it," Gorsuch said.
Hatch said some critics have questioned Gorsuch's judicial independence and objectivity, particularly whether he would stand up to President Donald Trump if he were to exceed his authority under the Constitution and laws of the land.
"Senator, a good judge doesn't give a whit about politics or the political implications about his or her decision," Gorsuch said.
Gorsuch said judges decide based on where the law takes them "fearlessly."
"My decisions have always been independent, regardless of who I'm agreeing or disagreeing with," he said. "Have I ruled against the government? My goodness. Ask the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado. I give them a pretty hard time. I make them square their corners, Sen. Hatch."