DC at Night

DC at Night

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Religion and the Supreme Court

The Bible is often in front of the court
As the highest court in the land and the ultimate arbiter of all things constitutional, the Supreme Court often hears cases involving freedom of religion issues. So, of course, that fact raises the question - do the religious beliefs of the Supreme Court justices influence their decisions?

Well, as is so often the case, the answer depends on whom you ask. Ask Justice Antonin Scalia and he says he would resign if he believed a personal religious stance would ever force him to forgo his judicial duty. He says he has an obligation to overcome any personal preferences and, as an originalist, always submit to the Constitution.

Scalia's benchmate Justice Stephen Breyer sees it differently. Breyer says that while he would never directly act on a personal religious conviction, his religion does a play a large role because it has shaped his vision of life.

In an attempt to get a clearer focus on the Supreme Court and the role of religion in that institution, Jeffery Rosen, a professor of law at George Washington University and legal affairs editor of The New Republic, shared his thoughts on the issue at a recent Defining Religious Freedom in America symposium held at the Newseum.

"Religion, per se, doesn't make a difference," Rosen said. "Judicial philosophy is more important than religion."

Currently, on a religious scale, the court consists of 6 Catholics and 3 Jews. Politically, there are 5 conservative and 4 liberal judges, which is a reason you often see so many 5-4 decisions.

Philosophically, judges usually fall into one of 3 categories when it comes to religious issues. There are supremacists who see no real problem with such issues as prayer in public schools. Or there are separatists who see any breach in the wall between church and state as impermissible. Or there are neutralists, siding with church or state depending on the issue. Rosen said he views Scalia and Clarence Thomas as strong supremacists. He considers Ruth Bader Ginsburg a staunch separatist.  He says Breyer and Elena Kagen are examples of neutralists.

Rosen said the non-emphasis on religion in the current court, which historically hasn't always been the case, is just another reflection of America today. "Religion is just one more prefix for the pluralistic way everyone is now in a hyphenated-America," Rosen contended. "The justices will continue what they have been doing - protecting the church from the state and the state from the church."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
To delve deeply into historic Supreme Court cases dealing with religion and religious freedom, click here.

Blog Archive

Popular Posts