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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Religion and the Court

Although the Constitution forbids any religious test for office, Americans have often been aware of the religious preferences of public officials. The first Catholic justice of the Supreme Court was Roger B. Taney. The first Jewish justice was Louis Brandeis. And now the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens marks an unusual moment. At Gallup, Frank Newport observes:
Some observers have taken note of the fact that, with Stevens’ retirement, there will be no Protestants or other non-Catholic Christians on the Supreme Court. Six of the remaining eight justices are Catholic. Two are Jewish. At the moment, that means that 67% of the U.S. Supreme Court is Catholic and 22% is Jewish.

This proportionality is, of course, widely different from the religious composition of the overall U.S. population. My latest calculation from over 350,000 Gallup Daily tracking interviews conducted in 2009 is that 24.3% of American adults identify their religion as Catholic and that 1.8% identify as Jewish. By far the largest group of Americans, religiously speaking, are Protestant/non-Catholic Christians -- 54% of all adult Americans in our 2009 data. After Stevens steps down, this group will have no representation on the court.

Also. Beyond Protestant/non-Catholic Christians and Catholics, the next most prevalent group in America is the 15.3% who say they have no religious identity, or who don’t otherwise give a response to our religion question. I don’t know how many potential nominees will openly say they have no religious identity. But presumably, some observers may argue that this group of atheist/non-believers also deserves their place on the court.