(RNS) Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions — such as the Hobby Lobby ruling, which affirmed a corporation’s religious objection to contraception — offered pundits an opportunity to pose some jarring questions.

Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Catholic.

Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Catholic.Public domain images

“Should we have six Catholic justices on the Supreme Court?” Center for Inquiry President Ronald A. Lindsay wondered in a Huffington Post blog.

Meanwhile, a Freedom From Religion Foundation ad in the New York Times lamented the “Roman Catholic Majority” of the high court, which Frances Kissling of Catholics for Choice once dismissed as a “Catholic Boy’s Club.”

To some, this is a 21st century version of the anti-Catholicism that was prevalent 100 years ago.

“From the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, Catholics had to deal with the Ku Klux Klan,” said Catholic League president Bill Donohue. “Now they must deal with more sophisticated bigots.”

Is he right? Not quite, though the court’s critics would be wise to steer clear of religion and focus on good old-fashioned politics.

The first thing that must be pointed out is that six Catholics serving on the Supreme Court —  Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas — should actually be celebrated. For decades, no Catholics were ever nominated to serve on the high court, and for much of the 20th century, just a single seat on the court was informally reserved for a Catholic.

Let’s take a moment and acknowledge this progress, before we get to the complicated stuff.

Defenders of the Supreme Court’s majority are quick to label its detractors anti-Catholic. But today’s rhetoric is tame compared with what you’d see during anti-Catholic high points of American history, for instance the 1840s or 1920s.

In 1921, future Supreme Court justice Hugo Black rose to political prominence in Alabama by defending Methodist minister E.R. Stephenson who murdered Catholic priest James Coyle. Coyle had officiated the marriage of Stephenson’s daughter to a Catholic. Stephenson was acquitted; Black later joined the anti-Catholic KKK before serving on the court from 1937 to 1971.

Either way, these days it seems the court’s guiding principles are more philosophical than religious. Though they are supposed to be above the political fray, the fact is the court’s conservative majority of five were all appointed by Republican presidents who seemed more interested in their right-leaning jurisprudence than in their church membership.

The court’s current critics should similarly focus more on politics. Liberals and moderates are not “sophisticated bigots” who are upset that there are so many Catholics on the court. They are upset because of the kinds of Catholics — conservative ones –serving on the court.

Even to the most secular of liberals, six Catholics on the Supreme Court would not be a problem, so long as they were six Catholics like Sotomayor.

The only viable solution for those who dislike the court’s conservative tilt is to make sure the next vacancy is filled by a Democratic president elected in 2016. (Four current justices are older than 75.)

As for the court’s supporters, they might be tempted to feel victorious, even smug right now. Not only do they win big cases, but they can claim to be victims of bigotry.

But those speaking out for aggrieved Catholics are defending a church that is, to say the least, divided.

The Vatican itself acknowledged this last month in a report based on parishioner surveys.

The “vast majority” of Catholic respondents feel that church leaders passing judgment “on the different methods of birth control … (is) an intrusion in the intimate life of the couple.” The same might be said for a wide range of hot-button issues, from gay marriage to abortion.

In short, the Catholics on the Supreme Court and their defenders may be out of step with many Americans, but they are definitely out of step with many Catholics.

The truth is this: Americans are still fighting the same culture war that led to the infamous Scopes Monkey trial in 1925. We still have not figured out the proper role religion should play in everyday life.

Some things have changed. Devout Catholics and Protestants no longer view each other as enemies. (Again, that’s a good thing.) They are now allies against what they view as an aggressively secular elite that has America slouching toward godlessness.

But many Catholics and Protestants — not to mention non-Christians —  believe their faiths are in need of some serious changes when it comes to contraception, sexuality, gender and a host of other issues. Reform is not bigotry.

But when the court’s critics make an issue out of all those Catholic justices, they do the same thing they claim the justices do: Pay far too much attention to religion.

(Tom Deignan, a regular contributor to The Star-Ledger, writes about Catholic issues for America Magazine, the Irish Voice newspaper and other publications.)



  1. There is no seperation of politics from religion, or from a secular worldview. People will vote (politic) according to their worldview. So the fundamental media message that you’ve been fed for generations is wrong. People will always vote according to their beliefs.

    If we were smart (we are not), we would just face this less that ideal truth and seperate into regional tribes according to ideology. The whole mixing thing IS the cause if strife.

    • Lies Nats: The first clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution, amendments about the rights of citizens, expressly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

      That is a constraint on our government, which includes the third branch, the Supreme Court. It is no constraint on the voting of any citizens at any time.

      A strong influence in our very real separation into “tribes,” which are somewhat regional, is definitely the ideology of religion as much as it is the ideology of politics. That is the right of the people, the voters. It is also the self-destruction of union. It is sad because it is dangerous when people cannot see the very real horrors of history when religion and government, church and state were mixed.

      That cannot be avoided, not even in a democracy, when people vote ignorantly, foolishly, or do not vote at all. However, government can and should be prevented from acting on a basis that mingles religion and government, church and state. As long as we have a Supreme Court with life-termed justices, that ignores and approves such constitutional violations and our legislature and executive do not develop appropriate laws that cannot be declared violations, we are doomed to the results of such dangerous violation. That is extinction. We will cease attaining what we have never yet been, a true democracy.

      • Whatever. We are a pick and choose country and society. We pick and choose which parts of the constitution we want to follow according to our needs and bias. Its a meaningless document now. Keep pretending we follow it to bolster any arguement you like, or don’t like. To speak of it as authoritative in current life sorta like speaking to a brick wall. It makes no difference on what actually ends up happening.

  2. Alexander Griswold

    Imagine that three of the conservative justices were observant Jews, rather than Catholics. Would the Huntington Post ever seriously consider running an article asking: “Should there be six Jews on the Supreme Court?”

    This is anti-Catholic bigotry, pure and simple. And this is coming from a Protestant.

  3. When the five-member, Catholic majority of the Supreme Court puts out decisions that are consistently, single-mindedly, conforming with their super-conservative religious background–in spite of Antonin Scalia’s hypocritical claim to have no concern for any other system of law or order–then it is not only legitimate, but proper, to expose the religious distortions of their rulings, their religious distortions of the very Constitution it is their sole job to uphold.

    Hobby Lobby was purely and simply a ruling that contradicted the first clause of the First Amendment of our Constitution.

    What about the Catholic Court’s consistent allowance of states to water down the previous Roe vs Wade decision by allowing those states and groups opposing abortion an expanded latitude in violating that division?

    What about the allowance of prayer, even clear denominational prayers, at government meetings? The Court’s Greece, NY, decision did that.

    What about the flipping and flopping regarding the posting of the religious “Ten Commandments” in public places?

    The list goes on and on, and Republican presidents like Reagan and the Bushes recognized they would obtain religious prejudice that matched their extreme political prejudice in their nominations of Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito.

    As long as religious violations persist in government activities, that government is a religion, not a democracy, and there is a demand that we persist in exposing it with steady and strong criticism.

    Justice Sonia Sotomayor is very wrongly included in the collection of photos of those who defile our Constitution by allowing their religious prejudice to play any part in the formation of their decisions. She has never participated in the outrageous errors of the other five. She has always properly, constitutionally maintained a clear separation between her religion and her official duties just as our Constitution demands a separation of church and state.

    Strong questions should be raised about considering Clarence Thomas as a Catholic though he certainly, consistently echoes his obvious mentor, Antonin Scalia. When Thomas was nominated and approved for the Court, he was an Episcopalian because of his invalid marriage to his second wife Virginia–who has since invalidly used her position in support of super-conservative causes. Thomas’ enhanced position as a justice of SCOTUS enabled him to have his Episcopalian marriage regularized as a Catholic marriage–proving it is who you know in big operations that matter. This is also the man who prefers his martinis in glasses with pubic hairs on them.

    It is vitally important to recognize that the three Jews, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, and the truly honorable Catholic Sotomayor, form the properly acting minority against the consistently improperly acting Catholic majority. Yes, attention to religion must be included in criticism of this Court because the Catholic majority of the Court operates as Catholics and includes religion in its decisions, just as it includes super-conservative politics, so obviously in its decisions.

    • As the government gets bigger, it is harder for it not to bump into conflicts with the First Amendment. It is impossible, with the current size of government, not to force the Supreme Court choose between supporting either the establishment clause or the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

      • Not really. Too many people think the free exercise clause stands for something it does not.

        It was never a license to disobey laws of general application. It was never license to deliberately harm others.

        As for the establishment clause, the problem comes with trying to make too many exceptions and carve outs for it based on rather spurious arguments but a clear intended result.

    • “What about the Catholic Court’s consistent allowance of states to water down the previous Roe vs Wade decision by allowing those states and groups opposing abortion an expanded latitude in violating that division?”

      Um…that was from Casey v. Planned Parenthood in 1992 which gave the states the ability to dilute abortion rights. The Court had a much different demographic back then. Not much has reached the Supreme Court on the subject since then.

      SCOTUS in the last 30 years has been pretty bad with 1st Amendment religious freedom. Most of the times they used to just punt those issues and either dismiss them on technical charges or decline hearing them.

      In all fairness, Kennedy is the odd duck among the conservative wing. He is a corporatist but not really a social conservative like Scalia, Alito, Roberts or Thomas. His opinions are the reason marriage equality has become a viable thing politically in this country.

    • Freedom of religion and the restraint of the federal government to restrict religious practice and expression is a core fundamental American Constitutional value. You may not agree with it, but that is not relevant. It is there embedded deeply into our US Constitution. There are millions of religious people in the United States and they have the Constitutional right to practice their faith.

      • And owing to the sin of omission, you fail to mention that the only way in which free exercise of religion CAN be protected is through the establishment clause. The separation of church and state protects both.

        There is nothing more dishonest than describing 1st Amendment religious freedoms only in terms of Free Exercise but omitting the Establishment clause. People who have no appreciation for religious freedom beyond what their own sect can get away with tend to do that.

  4. The Great God Pan

    “Devout Catholics and Protestants no longer view each other as enemies.”

    After they win, they will go back to fighting each other. They won’t be able to share power (the phrase “Philadelphia Bible Riots” comes to mind). That’s the small consolation I take in seeing them transform America into a right-wing theocracy.

  5. Tom Deignan,

    “…when the court’s critics make an issue out of all those Catholic justices, they do the same thing they claim the justices do: Pay far too much attention to religion.”


    Religion is nonsense and that is exactly the issue. To force the entire country to respect the whims of an invisible air pocket is to throw away the rights of men in favor of the AIR POCKET!

    Does this country NOT have ENOUGH problems to solve without these crusaders adding the needs of an AIR POCKET to national concerns?

    The court is a clutch of ignorant, witch burning hysterics.

    Shame on the USA.

  6. Religion should steer completely clear of politics but many times gets completely involved with it, which will only result to its detriment.

    Jesus did not get involved with politics (John 6:15), nor did his followers, as he preached the “good news of God’s kingdom” as the only hope for mankind (Matthew 7:14). Christians should make the same stand for God’s kingdom today.

  7. It is sort of strange that in a nation as diverse as ours with many different religions and many non-religious that so many of our very top justices just happen to be Catholic or Jewish. Not a single protestant. Not a single humanist. Not a single person from hundreds of other traditions represented by millions of Americans. Just Catholics and Jewish orientations. It raises a question of how could this happen if the best of the best are selected for these positions from a diverse and talented population of judges and attorneys. Also it is very interesting how Christian Catholicism makes exclusive religious claims (for example that Jesus is the Messiah) that are denied by official Jewish theological positions and the two orientations are somewhat antagonistic toward one another and it just happens that the Jews and the Catholics on the court of usually on opposite sides of the issue. Very curious indeed how religion plays a role here. Specifically the influence of Catholicism and Judaism.

    • John: The weakness of that argument is that it is possible to be Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or a non-believer and properly determine when and if our laws conflict with our Constitution. That is the purpose of the Supreme Court, of all federal courts.

      Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a Catholic but absolutely does not allow any politics or religion to determine her decisions. Sotomayor is proof, along with the three Jews, that you can be religious and humanist. In fact, the Christian West has a great tradition of humanism in its history. Numerous Jews and Catholics today are also humanists. It is not at all necessary that subscribing to one excludes the other.

  8. And this Catholic Supreme Court–that does not include Justice Sonia Sotomayor–ought to concentrate on the Constitution and totally avoid both politics and religion.

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