No Protestants on the Court

At the Liberty Law site this morning, I have a post on the absence of Protestant Christians on the Supreme Court. In historical terms, the lack of Protestants is a striking anomaly–the large majority of the 112 men and women who have sat as Justices over time has been Protestant. What explains the current situation, and might it have an effect on American law?

With regard to the first question, I argue that the absence of Protestants as to to with larger social and cultural questions. With respect to the second question, I argue, it depends on what sort of Protestant, and what sort of legal issues, one has in mind:

If Reno is right about the transformation of Mainline Protestantism into a post-Protestant WASP ethos, then it shouldn’t matter whether actual Mainline Protestants are on the Court. Given the composition of the legal profession, most people likely to be appointed to the Court will have post-Protestant WASP values, whatever their particular faith tradition. Recall my example of the Catholic or Orthodox 1L at Harvard. Post-Protestant WASP values, in other words, will be represented even without actual Mainline Protestants.

On the other hand, the absence of Evangelicals might make a difference to the Court’s decisions, at least with regard to some issues—for example, questions regarding religious liberty. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which abandoned the test for constitutional purposes, most hot-button religious liberty cases nowadays turn on some version of the “compelling interest” test. This test holds that the government cannot substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless it has a compelling interest for doing so and has chosen the least restrictive means. This is the test contained in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), for example—the statute at issue in the Court’s recent decisions regarding the contraception mandate in Obamacare.

The compelling interest test requires many judgment calls: What is a “substantial burden” on religious exercise? What is a “compelling interest”? Is there a “less restrictive means” available? (In fact, it was the necessity of such intuitive judgments that led the Smith Court to abandon the compelling interest test in the constitutional context). And judgment calls depend on the intuitions of the people doing the judging. An Evangelical Christian likely would have different intuitions about these matters than a post-Protestant WASP who views religions as more or less interchangeable, and anyway not all that important. Someone who views religion as a vital guide to behavior might be more skeptical of claims that a rule does not “substantially burden” religious exercise, or that the government has offered a “compelling” interest to justify the intrusion.

In short, on at least some questions, the religious background of the justices could well make a difference, and the absence of Evangelicals on the Court affect the course of the law. You can read the whole post here.

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