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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The influence of the Justices' religious beliefs

There is posted at the Moment website a symposium on the topic "Do the Religious Beliefs of Supreme Court Justices Influence Their Decisions?"   The participants are prominent journalists and writers about the Supreme Court, including (not naming all, but just the first three listed!) Tony Mauro, Lyle Denniston, and Robert Barnes.  

I've addressed this issue several times over the years at this and other blogs -- as have many others! -- often in the course of replying to the suggestion or accusation that the Catholic justices are imposing Catholic teachings, rather than interpreting and applying the Constitution, in abortion cases.  (In the symposium, Lyle Denniston writes that "[i]n his rulings on partial birth abortion, Justice Kennedy has especially been acting out his personal Catholic faith", but this in-my-view unfounded claim seems to reflect Lyle's view that Kennedy's stances in the abortion context are somehow inconsistent with his emphasis in other contexts on "liberty interests.")

Some of the participants observe, and I agree, that it is, if nothing else, interesting that the Court consists at present of six Roman Catholics, three Jews, and no Protestants.  (Here's WSJ thing I did on this subject a few years ago.)  I also think that what Emily Bazelon (and several others in the group) said is basically right (at least with respect to some -- I would say a relatively small number of -- cases whether the relevant legal materials are underspecific): 

[R]eligious beliefs are part of the sensibilities of some judges, and can inform how they approach cases, even if they don’t say so. It doesn’t make sense to think of the Court as Olympian and objective. The justices are just people, informed by personal background and history. Religion is a component of that.

That said, a few things that some of the participants said struck me as not quite right, or at least as incomplete.  (I'm not counting here the symposium editor's report that "[j]ust a decade ago, the general consensus was that justices were like umpires, objectively presiding over the nation’s legal system.")  For example, Lyle Denniston -- a widely and rightly respected Court observer -- states that "[i]n the past, Supreme Court justices were highly reluctant to allow their own values to come into play when ruling on religious matters."  I am skeptical.  For example, it seems clear to me that in the school-aid cases of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s -- cases that some of the participants characterize as "separationist" -- the "values", including the "religious" values, of the justices opposing the aid in question did plenty of work in shaping their views and driving their conclusions about the limits imposed by the First Amendment on allowing Catholic schools and students to participate in education-funding programs.  It does not seem right to say that we moved away from the strict no-aid view simply because new justices, unlike their predecessors, were willing to allow their "religious" beliefs (or, more specifically, their Catholic beliefs) to color their decisions about aid.  It seems more likely that this move owed a lot to a growing appreciation on the Court for the fact that the strict no-aid view owed more to Justice Black's and others' "own values" than it did to the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

I also thought that Stephen Wermiel might overstate the matter when he says that "the separationist view", which he associates with Justice Brennan, has "all but disappeared" on the Court.  Here, I think we need to be a bit more nuanced about what "separationist" means, and doesn't mean.  For example, some of us think that the Court's 9-0 decision in Hosanna-Tabor is an (appropriately) "separationist" decision, one that vindicates  what Wermiel calls "the essence of [Brennan's] separationist view—that having government involved in your religion demeans your religious beliefs."   And, the strict separationist Justice Brennan supported strongly the idea -- the idea that is operationalized in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was interpreted and applied in Hobby Lobby -- that it is appropriate to exempt religious believers and institutions, when it's possible, even from generally applicable laws that burden religious exercise, an idea that, unfortunately (as Paul discussed the other day), is increasingly regarded as a bigoted, right-wing "dog whistle."

 

Posted by Rick Garnett on January 14, 2015 at 01:03 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Religion, Rick Garnett | Permalink

Comments

A metatheory rhetorical question: how does the religious beliefs/disbeliefs of a reporter influence and affect how the reporter analyzes the religious beliefs of one of the Justices? How about this: the reporter discloses his or her religious beliefs/disbeliefs in his or her byline so the reader can better evaluate the analysis.

Posted by: Eugene Pekar | Jan 15, 2015 9:26:15 AM

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