Roberts Hearings Likely to Enter Religious Territory

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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

Faith has factored into previous Supreme Court confirmations, but the John Roberts hearings may be the first to take place on consecrated grounds.

Evangelical minister Rob Schenck secretly blessed every piece of furniture in the three Senate hearing rooms where the Judiciary Committee will consider the Roberts nomination. The Washington activist, who heads the National Clergy Council, described the exercise as "an act of prayer, in preparation for this whole process."

The Supreme Court is central to all of the big Christian conservative issues, including the role of religion in public life and the legality of abortion and same-sex marriage. Schenck and other conservative leaders are hoping that President Bush has found a kindred spirit for them in Roberts, a lifelong practicing Roman Catholic.

The degree to which Roberts's religious beliefs may inform his judicial philosophy could be a significant line of questioning, especially given that Roberts is replacing Sandra Day O'Connor, a key vote on many contentious social issues. Conservatives distrusted O'Connor for the same reason that liberals are sorry to see her go: She supported abortion rights and took moderate stances on other social causes, including voting to strike down Texas's sodomy law, a 2003 case that was a turning point for gay rights.

The signals with Roberts are mixed. Liberal women's groups believe that based on his legal record, he may attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade . Conservative groups also have found material not to like in the Roberts dossier, such as the Supreme Court case he helped to prepare challenging a Colorado constitutional amendment excluding gays from anti-discrimination laws.

The issue for both sides is not so much what Roberts believes is right or wrong. Rather, it is the degree to which he believes religious morality may be permitted to influence public policy. Liberals believe in a firewall between church and state, but as Christian conservatives see it, the Supreme Court should allow elected officials to restrict abortions or permit a Ten Commandments monument to be displayed on public property, if those actions have voter support. Gary Marx, executive director of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, described the ideal judge as "a neutral umpire . . . who respects what state legislatures are doing and doesn't try to be a lawmaker from on high."

The Roberts nomination is the first since conservative Christians became a key Republican voting bloc and transformed their beliefs into a political movement. Members of Congress now take legislative action in God's name -- for instance, when they tried to save the life of Terri Schiavo, who was brain-damaged.

"They know there's a political current out there, and they know they have to deal with it," said Laura R. Olson, a Clemson University political science professor who studies religion and politics.

Judiciary members who have expressed curiosity about Roberts's religious views include Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a liberal and a Catholic, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the panel's most conservative members. Coburn queried Roberts privately about how his faith influences his work and ran into resistance. "He said, 'I'm very uncomfortable talking about that,' " Coburn told reporters, adding he intended to raise the issue again.

Others do not want to touch it, including Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the committee's ranking Democrat, who also is a Catholic. "Just as we're supposed to be colorblind, we should be religious-blind," he said. Sen. John Cornyn, (R-Tex.), responded angrily to a report that Durbin had asked Roberts about potential religious conflicts of interest, "We have no religious test for public office . . . and I think anyone would find that sort of inquiry, if it were actually made, offensive."

Bush helped to trigger the debate in summer 2002, after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals banned the Pledge of Allegiance in schools because of the "under God" clause. "We need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God, and those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench," Bush declared then.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which opposes the Roberts nomination, said of Bush's remark, "In a sense we have to presume that he somehow vets people for their religion."

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