Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson would add another Protestant voice to heavily Catholic Supreme Court

John Fritze

WASHINGTON – It was only a few seconds after President Joe Biden announced Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee to the Supreme Court when she revealed an important part of her personal philosophy.

"I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey," the federal appeals court judge said at the White House on Feb. 25. "My life has been blessed beyond measure, and I do know that one can only come this far by faith."

Jackson, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is being celebrated as the first Black woman picked for the high court as well as its first former federal public defender. She would also bring a measure of religious diversity to the court as the only Christian without a substantial connection to Catholicism. 

The Miami native and Harvard Law School graduate identifies as a Christian and a Protestant, according to a source close to Jackson who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the judge's personal background. If confirmed, she would join a court made up of six Catholics, an Episcopalian who was raised Catholic and a Jew. 

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Assuming she is seated on the high court, Jackson would arrive as the justices – particularly those in the conservative majority – have paid an enormous amount of attention to religious exercise claims. In coming weeks, the court will decide whether Texas must allow a death row inmate to have physical contact with his preacher at the time of his execution, whether Maine may deny taxpayer tuition assistance to sectarian schools and whether a religious group may fly its flag over Boston's city hall.  

Earlier this year the court agreed to hear an appeal from a former high school football coach who said his First Amendment rights were violated when he lost his job at a school district outside of Seattle when he kneeled on the 50-yard line in prayer.

And while the legal questions in the case don't involve religion, the court has signaled it may overturn its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. Not only would that upend decades of how federal courts have looked at reproductive rights, it would also represent a victory for Catholics and evangelical Christians who have sought for decades to undermine Roe. 

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1 as justices consider state restrictions on the procedure.

Whether a potential justice's religion even matters is open to debate. Most of the current court's Catholics – including Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett along with Chief Justice John Roberts – fit squarely into its conservative wing. But Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is also Catholic, has emerged as the liberal conscience of a court where conservatives hold a 6-3 edge. 

"When we look solely at their denominational affiliation, that tells us next to nothing, unless somebody is a member of a far-right fundamentalist church or something like that," said Steven Green, a law professor and director of the Center for Religion, Law & Democracy at the Willamette University. "I think we have to look more at how they have approached church-state issues or related social issues."

On the other hand, religion can be an important part of a person's identity and how they view the world and think about moral issues such as fairness. 

"It's not a peripheral matter," said Stephen Prothero, a religious studies professor at Boston University. "There's no unbiased reading of the Constitution. We're all affected by who we are – by our race, by our ethnicity, our gender, and our religion."

Like other American political institutions, the Supreme Court was dominated by Protestant Christians for much of its history. Chief Justice Robert Taney, nominated by President Andrew Jackson and confirmed in 1836, was the first Catholic to serve on the high court. Associate Justice Louis Brandeis, nominated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, was the first Jewish person seated on the court. 

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On today's court, Associate Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer are both Jewish. Breyer announced in January that he intended to retire after nearly three decades on the court and Biden nominated Jackson, a former Breyer clerk, for his seat.

Six of nine current justices attended Catholic school, including Gorsuch. Though raised Catholic, Gorsuch attended an Episcopal church in Colorado as an appeals court judge there, according to reporting by CNN at the time. Episcopalians are part of the Anglican Church and describe themselves as "Protestant, yet Catholic."

In her prior public remarks, Jackson, 51, has tended to discuss religion in broad terms. Speaking to the Washington Council of Lawyers in 2018, Jackson described growing up in a predominately Jewish suburb of Miami. "And between all the bar and bat mitzvahs, I got involved in student government," she said, according to a copy of the speech. 

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson meets with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on March 3, 2022.

"In my faith tradition, it is said that to whom much is given, much is expected," Jackson told a group in 2020. "I take that to mean that we who have benefitted have a responsibility to give back to our community in whatever way we can."

During her confirmation hearing for the D.C. Circuit last year, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., quizzed Jackson about her position on the board of a Maryland school, the Montrose Christian School, from 2010 to 2011. That school reportedly included language on its website that promoted the "sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death" and asserted that "marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman."

Jackson said she wasn't aware of the statements.   

"I do believe in religious liberty. That is a foundational tenet of our entire government," she told Hawley during the hearing. But, she added, "any personal views about religion would never come into my service as a judge."

Religion has played a role in past Supreme Court confirmation battles, including for Gorsuch, who faced some criticism on the right because his church was considered friendly to LGBTQ parishioners. The Washington Post described the church at the time as "notably liberal" and The Hill newspaper ran an op-ed questioning whether Gorsuch was a "secret liberal." 

After five years on the court, Gorsuch is never described as a liberal, though he did author a decision in 2020 barring workplace discrimination against LGBTQ employees

Barrett, who was previously a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university, came under fire for her ties to a Christian religious group called People of Praise. Among the group's teachings, according to the Associated Press and other outlets, was the idea that women must submit to the will of their husbands.  

"The tenets of your faith mean a lot to you personally, is that correct?" Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Barrett during her confirmation hearing in 2020. 

"That is true," Barrett responded.   

"Can you set aside whatever Catholic beliefs you have regarding any issue before you?" Graham continued.  

"I can," Barrett said, asserting she had done so on the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and that "if I'm confirmed to the Supreme Court, I will do that still." 

Contributing: Kevin McCoy