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Jackson invokes her Christian faith, stays mum on specifics

March 23, 2022 GMT
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has put her religious faith front, center — and vague.

She’s spoken strongly of the role of her faith in her life and career but hasn’t gotten into the specifics of that commitment. Her beliefs have drawn some attention as she undergoes Senate Judiciary Committee hearings this week for her nomination to the Supreme Court.

“I must also pause to reaffirm my thanks to God, for it is faith that sustains me at this moment,” Jackson told the committee on Monday, in words similar to her opening remarks after President Joe Biden introduced her last month as his nominee. “Even prior to today, I can honestly say that my life had been blessed beyond measure.”

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Jackson identifies as a nondenominational Protestant, she told the committee on Tuesday, when questioned by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Graham pressed, asking how often she attends church. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how faithful would you say you are in terms of religion?”

Jackson replied, “I am reluctant to talk about my faith in this way just because I want to be mindful of the need for the public to have confidence in my ability to separate out my personal views.” She said her faith is important but noted the Constitution prohibits any religious test for public office.

Graham agreed and conceded she could be impartial — but said he was trying to raise a comparison with what he deemed unfair treatment of a Republican nominee by Democrats. They inquired whether the Catholic views of Amy Coney Barrett in 2017 — then being confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals — would influence her decisions on cases like the Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. Barrett joined the Supreme Court in 2020.

Alluding to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s famous exchange with Barrett, Graham said, “How would you feel if a senator up here said, ‘The dogma lives loudly within you and that’s of concern’?”

If Jackson has a specific church affiliation, it could not be readily found in standard Google searches, nor through a keyword search of the roughly 2,000 pages of documents released by the Judiciary Committee, which include a large swath of Jackson’s public record — such as speeches and judicial decisions.

Jackson regularly speaks of the motivating power of faith and prayer — whether in a high school commencement address or a speech on the deep faith of civil rights activists. In an exchange Tuesday with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, she said, “I focus at times on my faith when I am going through hard times.”

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But the record gives no hint of whether she ever belonged to a specific congregation, whether she’s held any church leadership role or whether she attends services regularly.

For supporter Barbara Williams-Skinner, none of that matters so much as her public life.

“She says she’s a strong person of faith, and we’ve seen it in action,” said Williams-Skinner, co-convener of the National African American Clergy Network. She cited Jackson’s work as a public defender, making a “choice to defend those who cannot defend themselves,” and on the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission.

“People who may not even agree with her on a range of issues believe she will lean on her faith to be fair, to be committed to the Constitution,” Williams-Skinner said.

Historically, the majority of the justices have been Protestant. But today, the court has six Catholic, one Protestant and two Jewish justices, although the latter number will go down by one when Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement takes effect. The lone Protestant, Neil Gorsuch, grew up Catholic, but more recently has attended Protestant services.

Jackson has faced some cases involving church-state law, but she has refused to lay out a philosophy addressing it.

When facing Senate confirmation hearings for a position on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2021, senators peppered her with questions about whether she agreed with court rulings that overturned state restrictions on funding for religious institutions or on public worship during the pandemic.

In a written reply to senators, she cited the “indisputable fact” that the Constitution “protects a fundamental and foundational right to religious liberty.” She noted the Supreme Court has been working through the implications of “what it means to treat religious organizations differently,” and she said she’d be bound by those precedents.

“I have not expressed any personal views of the scope and contours of the fundamental right to religious liberty, and it would not be appropriate for me to do so,” she said.

That answer might have sufficed for an appellate-level position, but senators need to press for more answers about her philosophy, said Roger Severino, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and former director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration.

Severino said senators should ask her judicial philosophy in matters such as when claims of religious liberty clash with government actions.

“She gave the platitudes,” Severino said. “Nobody’s going to come out and say, ‘I’m against religious liberty.’ But here’s the thing: When she’s on the Supreme Court, she no longer has the duty to follow Supreme Court precedent. She could overrule the Supreme Court precedent.”

Jackson previously served on the board of Montrose Christian School, a private school in Maryland affiliated with a Southern Baptist church. That school’s statement of belief echoed the denomination’s doctrinal stances against same-sex marriage and abortion and stating a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband’s leadership.

Questioned about this role in 2021 during her appellate hearing, she said she wasn’t aware of the statement and doesn’t “necessarily agree with all of the statements” of boards she serves on.

Severino contrasted Jackson’s response with how Barrett was criticized for affiliating with a Christian school with similar beliefs. “Because this is one of their own, the left is giving (Jackson) a pass.”

Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said she had no problem with Jackson highlighting her faith in God.

“When someone is in a key life moment, it’s appropriate for them to be authentic about who they are,” Laser said, noting that Biden often cites his Catholic faith publicly.

“So long as these folks are supportive of church-state separation in their official capacity and are aware they’re talking to an audience that is diverse and may not share their beliefs, it’s perfectly fine for them to be authentic,” she said.

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Associated Press reporter Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.

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