President Bush today defended references by a White House official to Harriet Miers's religion because people are interested "to know why I picked" her for the Supreme Court opening and "they want to know as much as they possibly can" about her.

Bush's comments came in response to a question about why his top political aide, Karl Rove, found it necessary to assure evangelical Christian leaders that Miers was one of them.

"People are interested to know why I picked Harriet Miers," Bush said. "They want to know Harriet Miers's background. They want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. Part of Harriet Miers life is her religion," he said, noting that she was also a "pioneer woman and a trailblazer in the law."

"I remind people that Harriet Miers has been rated, consistently, one of the top 50 women lawyers in the United States," he said.

"She's eminently qualified for the job. And she has got a judicial philosophy that I appreciate. Otherwise, I wouldn't have named her to the bench."

The specific query to Bush, at a photo opportunity with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, followed a statement by Focus on Family leader James Dobson, a major figure in the religious conservative movement. Dobson said that Rove had informed him in advance of the choice of Miers and assured him, in his words, that "Harriet Miers is an Evangelical Christian, that she is from a very conservative church, which is almost universally pro-life, that she had taken on the American Bar Association on the issue of abortion and fought for a policy that would not be supportive of abortion, that she had been a member of the Texas Right to Life."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said earlier today that Rove was only "reaching out" to presumed conservative supporters skeptical about her nomination to the court to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Dobson's comments, and now the president's, come amid growing anger among conservative intellectuals about the Miers appointment and about the appropriateness of religion being a factor in Supreme Court nominations.

"When it was suggested that John Roberts's Catholic faith might be an area for inquiry in his confirmation, White House allies recoiled in horror," National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote in an article published online today.

"Now the White House tells conservatives that Miers will vote the right way because she's a born-again Christian. . . . As sociology, there is something to this -- an evangelical is more likely to be conservative than a Unitarian -- but to place so much weight on Miers's demographic profile, rather than her own merits and judicial philosophy, is noxious and un-American."

Yesterday, some conservatives criticized Laura Bush for stating, in response to a question, that it was "possible" that sexism was responsible for some of the negative reaction to Miers.

It was not Bush's first reference to the spiritual aspects of the Miers appointment. When he announced her nomination, he said he "sought to find an American of grace, judgment and unwavering devotion to the Constitution and laws of our country." His use of the term "grace" was immediately noted by allies and critics alike as a reference to her religious faith.

McClellan, in his regular briefing with reporters later in the day, denied that the president had made religion part of the process for choosing Miers. "The President makes selections based on potential nominees' qualifications and experience and judicial temperament," McClellan said. "That is what he has done in each and every instance when it comes to appointing people to the bench. He has a long track record of appointing people who have a conservative judicial philosophy, one that is based on interpreting our Constitution and our laws, not making law from the bench. And that's what he bases his decisions on, not someone's religion."

Earlier today during a round of television interviews concerning the Miers appointment, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stated that "a person's personal beliefs are irrelevant, or should be irrelevant, in terms of how they're going to approach the job as a judge."

On another show he said that "I believe that she is pro-life. But the question as to whether or not she's pro-life or not has no bearing and should have no bearing as to whether or not -- how she would rule on a particular case interpreting the right to an abortion."