With the seating of Amy Coney Barrett to SCOTUS in late 2020, the Court’s Catholic cohort of members, nominally or professed, became six of nine. They are: John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, and Ms. Barrett. There had been some speculation that the additions of Kavanaugh and Barrett might draw Roberts from a centrist judicial vision toward one more likely to eviscerate Roe v. Wade, given the doctrinal views of the Catholic Church on abortion. This view was bolstered, in part, by the Catholic tilt of leading members of the Federalist Society and others, including Carrie Severino, head of the Judicial Crisis Network.
Historically, there has existed a strain of anti-Catholic sentiment in the US. In public life, that antipathy received a substantial blow in 1960 when the then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy addressed a meeting of Protestant ministers in Houston.
That wish has not yet been tested. Historically, there has existed a strain of anti-Catholic sentiment in the US. In public life, that antipathy received a substantial blow in 1960 when the then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy addressed a meeting of Protestant ministers in Houston. His words then outlined nearly verbatim those of the current president, Joseph R. Biden:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
The presence of a super majority of Catholics on the Supreme Court has not as yet evoked any extensive or significant outcry or criticism of that group’s religious persuasion in regard to their jurisprudence. Two recent decisions reflect views among the six that demonstrate that their religion is not a force for a unitary conception emanating from a common credo.
In December 2020, in a case involving emergency group social restrictions on churches in California, the six espoused three different views regarding the state’s rules. The Golden State’s restrictions limited the size of congregate worship along with a ban on singing and chanting based upon the recommendations of public health experts. Justices Thomas and Alito, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, voted to negate both of the limitations. Justice Sotomayor, along with Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, ruled both limitations were a valid expression of state authority and were to be left in place. Justices Barrett (writing for the majority) and Kavanaugh voted against the ban on singing or chanting, while Chief Justice Roberts sought to balance the views and opined that the Court should defer to the state’s authority but that such deference had limitations.
In February 2021 the Court, in a per curiam (collective) ruling, led by Justice Barrett, issued a stay of execution, joined by three of the liberal wing (Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor), holding that Alabama must allow the inmate, a devout Christian, to have his pastor allowed into the execution chamber when he is killed. This decision followed two facially contradictory opinions in 2019. One, by a 5-4 vote, allowed Alabama to execute a prisoner without his spiritual adviser present, despite his request to allow his imam into the execution chamber, although state regulations permitted a Christian minister to attend. Two months later, Texas ruled, upheld in a 6-3 vote with Kavanaugh and Roberts in the majority, to allow a Buddhist inmate to be accompanied by a spiritual adviser.
These decisions do not reflect any identifiable theological fracture among the Court’s Catholic cohort. The California pandemic regulations case relates more to the limits on governmental authority to modify absolutist views of freedom of religion during an emergency health crisis. The latter cases involve personal expressions of religious freedom in the face of inconsistent state rules.
Whether the more deeply doctrinal opposition of the Catholic Church toward abortion might generate a more coherent judicial conclusion among the six Catholic justices remains to be seen. The two recent decisions offers some perspective and promise that religious doctrine does not equate with jurisprudential views in the public place.
Whether the more deeply doctrinal opposition of the Catholic Church toward abortion might generate a more coherent judicial conclusion among the six Catholic justices remains to be seen. The two recent decisions offers some perspective and promise that religious doctrine does not equate with jurisprudential views in the public place. Predictions as to the votes of justices in an abortion contest are at best no more than guesses.
While the First Amendment and JFK’s principles seem to offer a comprehensive bright line of clarity on church-state relations, the political and emotional forces in the abortion debate are further complicated by religious doctrines advocated as the construct for a nation’s secular standard. One Nation Under God and In God We Trust are powerful memes and tropes in the dialogue.