IN THE MID-19th century, a semi-secret political movement spread fear of Irish-Catholic immigrants. Called Know Nothings because members were to say "I know nothing" when asked about it, they believed that Catholics were a danger to American values because their first allegiance was to the pope in Rome.

The term "Know Nothings" is back in the news, a ready-made accusation against anyone who dares wonder whether last month's stunning reversal on abortion rights by the Supreme Court has anything to do with the fact that the five-member majority are all Catholics.

"How about separation of church and state in America?" demanded Rosie O'Donnell on "The View." Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth drew a hail of criticism when he drew the five justices wearing bishops' mitres.

Constitutional expert Geoffrey R. Stone termed it a "painfully awkward observation" that was "mortifying to point out": In upholding a federal ban on "partial-birth abortion" nearly identical to the one the court struck down several years ago, the justices used nonsensical reasoning that also upheld their church's teaching.

They accepted Congress' assertion of a medical consensus that the "intact D&E procedure" prohibited by the law is never medically necessary, when the most experienced doctors in the field say there is a reverse consensus: it often is the best procedure to protect a woman's health. And the majority opinion expressed a "moral concern" for the fetus even before it is able to live outside the womb. In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wondered how long it will be before the same majority decides it has a moral duty to save every fetus.

The moral value of a fetus varies from one religion to another and to those who don't believe. It's a "rationally unsolvable" question the Supreme Court has wisely sidestepped for 30 years, leaving the choice where it belongs, with a woman and her doctor.

So is it only coincidental that the five Catholic justices joined to engineer this radical change? Is pointing out the connections bigotry? Put aside for a moment the ludicrous Know Nothing charge that equates powerless victims with men on the Supreme Court. Is simply raising this question promoting hatred?

Some self-appointed defenders of the faith, like John Yoo, writing on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, were quick to say so. Yoo even had the nerve to invoke John F. Kennedy's assertion in 1960 that he didn't speak for the Catholic Church and the church didn't speak for him, as if that should settle the question.

Kennedy's campaign was indeed a watershed moment for American Catholicism's fight against bigotry. While many Catholics still hold JFK's view that their beliefs are a private matter that shouldn't influence public decision-making, a significant number of ultra-traditionalist Catholics believe Kennedy's claim has done "great harm to America," in the words of Pennsylvania's ex-senator, Rick Santorum.

Santorum made these remarks at the 100th anniversary of Opus Dei, which insists that Catholicism should shape a person's approach to public policy. And there is some evidence that four Supreme Court justices - Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts - may share this attitude.

Frank Cocozzelli, a liberal Catholic lawyer who's been writing on the Catholic right for the blog talk2action.org, believes these four are more than mainstream conservative Catholics. He has logged evidence that they are "ultra-traditionalists" who aren't members of Opus Dei, but have strong connections to it.

Do Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito agree with Santorum that JFK's belief in the "absolute" separation of church and state did great harm? What role do they believe their Catholicism should play in shaping their view of the Constitution? We don't know. When Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, also a Catholic, tried to raise these questions during the confirmation hearings for Alito, he too was called a bigot.

But charges of bigotry shouldn't blunt sharp questioning on this issue in the future. This abortion ruling makes a nominee's specific religious beliefs an appropriate subject for a confirmation hearing.

Praying With the News: In the recent debate of GOP presidential candidates, three out of 10 said they don't believe in evolution. Let us pray that we live in an America where that ignorance renders them unelectable. *

Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer who was a longtime member of the Daily News editorial board. E-mail her at