FFRF renews call to chief justice to probe infiltration by Christian-right groups

Supreme Court

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts urging him once again to investigate infiltration of the high court by right-wing Christian advocates who are associated with Supreme Court litigants.

FFRF’s latest missive was prompted by a two-and-a-half page recent New York Times exposé based on interviews with former anti-abortion crusader Rev. Rob Schenck. The Times published a detailed article on Nov. 19 in which Schenck reported an improper meeting between Justice Samuel Alito and two of Schenck’s “star donors” in 2014.

One of them, Gayle Wright, reportedly returned from that 2014 dinner party to inform Schenck that Alito would be writing a 5-4 decision in favor of Hobby Lobby in the case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which was released later that year. The decision exempted family-owned corporations from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, ruling that forcing them to cover contraception they disfavored was a violation of their religious freedom.

Contemporary emails lend credibility to Schenck’s claim, as do prior reports by Schenck that he and his associates sought to become close with certain justices, including Justice Samuel Alito. Their schemes also involved infiltration of the nonprofit court Historical Society, which also has access to the justices.

The exposé followed a July article by Rolling Stone in which Peggy Nienaber, executive director of DC Ministry and vice president of Faith & Liberty, claimed that she has prayed with multiple sitting Supreme Court justices inside the Supreme Court building. Schenck, the group’s founder, said that when he was in charge of Faith & Liberty up until the mid-2010s, he met with and prayed with Justices Alito and Clarence Thomas, reportedly saying “he would pray with them inside the high court.”

After the release of that article, FFRF, Center for Inquiry and American Atheists wrote a joint letter to Roberts urging an investigation.

The Times reported that Schenck purchased a building across the street from the Supreme Court and “began working with the court’s employees,” including with Perry Thompson, an administrator, whom Schenck referred to as “God’s ‘secret agent’” at the court. Schenck said he “exploited my friendships,” including with David T. Pride, executive director of the court’s Historical Society, who, at Schenck’s request, invited Hobby Lobby CEO David Green to the chief justice’s Christmas party.

Schenck even advised the Wrights: “See a justice — boldly approach.” He told them, “Your presence alone telegraphs a very important signal to the justices: Christians are concerned about the court and the key issues that come before it.” The Times said no donors were closer to the justices than the Wrights. Don Wright hunted with Justice Antonin Scalia, and the couple socialized with the Alitos, Scalias and Thomases, hosting the Alitos at their Wyoming retreat.

Schenck, who has had a change of heart, even writing an op-ed for the Times three years ago in favor of retaining Roe v. Wade, told the Times: “You can gain access, have conversations, share prayer.” He said that even before his political transformation, “I would look up at that phrase that’s chiseled into the building itself, ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ I would think, ‘Not really.’”

“Quite an indictment,” as FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to the chief justice. “These serious allegations underscore the urgent need for an investigation. . . . Justices, like lower court judges, should be prohibited from creating even an impression of partiality. At a time when Americans are sorely lacking in confidence toward the high court, we urge you to demonstrate the court’s commitment to the ethical and impartial administration of justice.”

FFRF, with many other leading organizations, is urging Congress to pass the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act, which would involve meaningful and enforceable thetics guidelines for Supreme Court justices.

Read FFRF’s letter to Chief Justice Roberts here.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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