Questions about John Roberts' Faith Merit Answers: Politically Active Christians Have Forced the Issue of Religion to the Forefront

By McBrien, Richard P. | National Catholic Reporter, September 16, 2005 | Go to article overview

Questions about John Roberts' Faith Merit Answers: Politically Active Christians Have Forced the Issue of Religion to the Forefront


McBrien, Richard P., National Catholic Reporter


By the time this week's column appears, its topic may very well have passed its expiration date. Events have moved rapidly. Judge John Roberts has been nominated to succeed the late William Rehnquist as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee may have already sent the nomination to the full Senate with a positive recommendation. In all likelihood, Judge Roberts will be confirmed by a substantial bipartisan vote.

There is an issue, however, that will continue to be of interest and concern, especially if the next nominee to fill Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the court also has strong religious commitments. The nominee may be a Roman Catholic, as is Judge Roberts, or an evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant, with deeply held views on abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia and a host of other moral issues.

In the case of a Roman Catholic, those views may be reflective of a particular understanding of official church teachings on such topics as these. In the case of an evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant, the nominee's views may be derived from a particular interpretation of selected texts in the Bible.

In either case, it would not only be fair but mandatory for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and for the Senate as a whole to ask nominees whether they would, in effect, allow their own religious beliefs to override their obligation to interpret the Constitution in a judicially objective fashion.

Would the raising of such a question indicate a bias against religion in general, or against Catholics and conservative Protestants in particular? Some commentators seem to think so.

In an Aug. 29 letter to the Los Angeles Times, William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and a frequent guest on cable and network television, objected to the central point in former Gov. Mario Cuomo's op-ed piece pub fished four days earlier.

Gov. Cuomo had argued that the Senate Judiciary Committee should raise the religious question in the hearing on Judge Roberts to satisfy itself, the full Senate, and the country at large that, if confirmed, Justice Roberts would interpret the Constitution on the basis of recognized legal principles and precedents rather than his personal religious beliefs as a Catholic.

Mr. Donohue was caustic in his criticism of Gov. Cuomo. "This [question] would be obnoxious even if asked of every Supreme Court nominee," he wrote, "but that no one--including Cuomo--ever broached this idea when others were being considered for the high court suggests an animus so vile as to be indecent. …

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