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Bhaskar '21: Religion, controversy and the Supreme Court

Following a turning point in American history, President-elect Joe Biden must prepare to enter an ideological arena that has been freshly impacted by the controversial appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, which created a 6-3 conservative-liberal majority. Amidst bipartisan outcries regarding both President Trump’s nomination of Barrett and the Biden administration’s propositions of Supreme Court reform, the post-election transitionary period has been rife with reflections and debates regarding the influence that religion and personal values should exert in the political landscape of America — and specifically on the Supreme Court.

It is curious to note that, while presidents and vice presidents often freely publicize their religious affiliations and regularly advocate for their belief systems before national forums and campaigns, Supreme Court justices seldom use their platforms to leverage their religious beliefs in the same manner, often keeping these beliefs understated or shrouded. Indeed, the dearth of public discussion that surrounded the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s secular presence on the court can be strongly juxtaposed with public scrutiny surrounding Amy Coney Barrett’s religious affiliation with the Christian-based faith group, People of Praise.  Despite Barrett’s clean record and myriad personal and academic accomplishments, a number of stakeholders are concerned that her religious leanings may sway her political decision-making. They argue that Barrett’s moral values, coupled with her propensity to follow the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s style of originalism would undermine the progressive nature of the Supreme Court and the recent precedents that have shaped it. 

With Barrett’s presence on the Court, the age-old debate has risen to the surface: What role, if any, can religion and its influence on partisan beliefs hold within the highest American court? Furthermore, how can this answer help us reconcile across the aisle in the incendiary ideological tug-of-war that will likely recur every time an existing justice passes? 

As a staunch proponent for the separation of religious and secular matters, my initial reaction to Barrett’s confirmation was one of alarm and disappointment regarding the implications that Barrett’s status and expressed beliefs pose for her decisions regarding religiously charged issues — from reproductive rights to the freedoms afforded to transgender and queer individuals. However, in the time since the confirmation, I recognize that Barrett’s confirmation highlights the ever-present, yet seldom discussed entanglement of religion into American society. Whether subtly or openly, our nation's highest leaders often directly facilitate this entanglement, from the Oval Office to the Supreme Court.  

From business closures on Sundays to medical precedents surrounding reproductive rights and end of life care, to the very art and architecture that saturates society, religion remains a defining characteristic and enduring truth of American life and culture. Religion is as much a part of our culture as it is often a central tenet of who we are. For many, one’s religion plays a crucial role in the development of their morals and convictions. 

The roles of representatives, senators and justices require both an understanding of legal and judicial precedent and a tenacious willingness to advocate for one’s convictions regarding the interpretation of the law. Expectations of maintaining a sustained, impermeable barrier between the personal and professional life of a public servant, and of completely relinquishing personal morality and religious ideals within such professions, are absurdly idealistic and unreasonable at best. Rather, justices must be expected to acknowledge and confront their biases and reflect upon the many factors that shape their jurisprudence and guide their schema for decision making. While I recognize that justices may not intentionally inject their moral convictions into the text, it seems illogical to conclude that they are always able to consciously separate personal convictions from professional ones in interpreting a document that was crafted so long ago that it does not outline jurisdiction for many modern, controversial developments. 

Even with a complete restructuring of the very institution of the Supreme Court, there is little to no way that America can or should completely abandon the expression of religious matters in favour of carefully measured secularism. Judicial decisions are based on existing precedents and are molded in the hands of justices, each of whom inevitably, unconsciously infuses personal experiences, political leanings and religious beliefs into the creation of an outcome. The underlying presence of religion and ideological stratifications in beliefs within nearly every facet of society is not only a reality of American society but is the very foundation of our human abilities to disagree and hold unique and nuanced viewpoints. Jurisprudence and political decision-making require both empathy and a personal compass to reconcile evidence and emotion toward an informed resolution.  

Whether one may approve of or abhor the vestiges of religion entrenched in society, the presence of such — much like Supreme Court confirmations themselves —  is far beyond our control. With regard to the newly confirmed Justice Barett and her colleagues, I neither hope for nor expect a complete divestment from all semblances of personally held values and beliefs in favour of cool logic and emotionally detached decision-making. Inclinations and personal convictions are crucial, if not essential to the character required of political leaders, lawyers and judges. I simply request the members of the Court to look outside their immediate contexts to confront existing biases and educate themselves with exposure to perspectives outside their own. I implore them to avoid falling prey to available stereotypes and generalized streams of judgment, and instead to critically engage with the unique and nuanced narratives of individual citizens. And above all, I urge those in leadership to recognize that their worldview is not the worldview shared by many under their jurisdiction, and to feel compelled by virtue of their positions of power to adopt a more inclusive and lucid style of action guided by inquiry, empathy, and consideration.

Nidhi Bhaskar '21 can be reached at nidhi_bhaskar@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

 



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