Heads up: Senators may and should ask nominees about religion

The Freedom From Religion Foundation predicts that in the upcoming battle over filling the vacancy left by Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, extremists and Christian Nationalists will seek to muzzle inquiries and limit senatorial questioning about the nominee’s religious beliefs.

The name at the top of President Trump’s list, Amy Coney Barrett, has written that Catholic faith should sometimes trump a judge’s oath of office. When Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin asked her about that remark during her 2017 appeals court nomination, they were denounced as bigots, a concocted charge. Even the National Catholic Reporter ran a 2018 op-ed entitled, “Raising questions about Amy Barrett's beliefs is not an anti-popery riot.” Yet extremists manufactured a conflict, claiming the questions amounted to anti-Catholicism and religious persecution.

Judge Neomi Rao, newly appointed by Trump and the Senate to an appeals court, once chastised the Supreme Court for favoring the rights of two consenting adults over religious sexual mores. When Sen. Cory Booker asked Rao during her confirmation hearing whether she thought gay relationships were immoral or sinful, he wasn’t just grilling Rao about religion. He was asking about her ability to be a fair and impartial judge. Would she decide cases based on our secular law or her god’s law?

Senators are constitutionally required to demand an answer to that question. Many of Trump’s judicial picks have openly discussed their religion and how their Christian beliefs affect their lives and judgment. Senators have a duty to assure themselves and the public that nominees are fit to perform the job for which they are nominated. Senators are required by the Constitution to advise and consent on judicial nominees. If senators refuse to ask such questions, they are not practicing tolerance and pluralism, they are abandoning their duty and their oath of office.

Does such a line of questioning violate the constitutional prohibition against religious tests for public office? No. The central issue is not what religion a nominee is, but whether a judicial nominee can uphold her oath of office and treat the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land.” This is especially critical when a nominee has previously claimed that her private faith can trump her public duty. The problem is not that the nominee is religious or of a particular faith, but that she has stated a willingness to act in defiance of sworn duties based on those beliefs. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse may have said it best: “It absolutely is the business of this committee to make sure that nominees who seek judicial office in the United State of America will leave their religious beliefs in the robing room and not bring them up onto the bench . . . Our courts are not temples to any god, but temples to law and justice.”

What can you do?

  1. Speak up. Anywhere you hear claims of “anti-Catholic bigotry” or the like against the coming nominee, correct the record. Comment on social media. Write a letter to the editor. Do not let this attempt to muzzle legitimate inquiry prevail.
  2. Contact your senators. They need to hear that people support asking the kinds of questions mentioned above. Don’t let cries of religious bigotry be the only thing these senators hear.
  3. Share this information and/or the articles linked below on your social media or text them to your friends.

Spread this information. Fight back. Below are additional resources.

Additional Resources

  1. Senators can and must ask about nominees religious beliefs,” Religion Dispatches op-ed by Andrew L. Seidel, FFRF Director of Strategic Response.
  2. Op-ed “Justice Thomas Fails on Religious Test Answer,” Rewire News op-ed by Andrew L. Seidel, FFRF Director of Strategic Response.
  3. Op-ed, “Yes, Questions of Religion Can Be Fair Game for Senate Confirmation Hearings” Freethought Now! op-ed by Andrew L. Seidel, FFRF Director of Strategic Response.
  4. No, Dianne Feinstein is not an anti-Catholic bigot,” Washington Post op-ed by Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Boston College.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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