January 11, 2006

Alito would give U.S. high court Catholic majority

By Michael Conlon

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Roman Catholics would be the majority
on the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time if Samuel Alito is
confirmed -- a historically remarkable prospect in a country
where "papists" were once taught in state schools that their
faith was a lie.

But so far the development has passed for little more than
a curiosity, reflecting how politics trumps religion when it
comes to appointments to America's highest court, experts say.

Alito and the Catholics already on the court -- John
Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas --
appear to share many conservative views held by evangelical
Protestants, a group historically suspicious of Rome and its
hierarchical church.

The prospect of a Catholic court majority "is a credit to
the evolution of America," said Julie Fenster, co-author of
"Parish Priest," a book recently published by William Morrow
about the Catholic priest who founded the Knights of Columbus.

"I don't think Catholics here realize how much their
antecedents had to take on the chin in terms of job
discrimination, public jeering -- in some towns it was hard to
walk down the street without being shouted at," she said.

"And in the (public) schools you had to accept that your
children would be taught from textbooks that said Catholicism
was wrong," Fenster said.


Historically, many Americans questioned whether Roman
Catholics could uphold the U.S. constitution, or whether they
were obligated to follow the dictates of the Pope while in
office. There has been only one Roman Catholic U.S. president,
John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960.

But evangelical Protestants seem so far to be embracing
Alito, unlike President George W. Bush's last court nominee,
Harriet Miers.

"Look at how the evangelical right responded to one of its
own when it came to Harriet Miers," said Brent Walker,
executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious

Bush nominated Miers, a fellow conservative Christian, last
year but she withdrew under fierce attack from conservatives
who questioned her credentials and commitment to conservative

"It just shows you how it's mostly about ideology and not
about religion," added Walker, whose Washington-based coalition
of 14 Baptist bodies works for religious liberty causes.

"I think it's good that not a lot is being made of it.
Generally religion is not a very good predictor of how one will
decide cases," he added, noting that former justice William
Brennan, also a Catholic, was a liberal.

Of the remaining justices, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Ginsburg
are Jewish, David Souter is Episcopalian and John Paul Stevens
is Protestant.

"During much of 20th Century there was a Catholic seat and
a Jewish seat (on the court). Anything but one Catholic would
have created a lot of consternation among Protestants and
evangelicals," said Martin Flaherty, a Fordham Law School
professor who once clerked for former Supreme Court Justice
Byron White.


Alito and the others appear to have far more things in
common than differences, he said.

"On some level the court should be very roughly
representative of the country. If you have not just a majority
but (one) from a certain wing of a denomination you wonder if
the court does represent the country," he added.

About one in four Americans say they are Roman Catholic,
making the church by far the largest single U.S. denomination.
There is no monolithic political philosophy marking the faith,
despite the church's strong official opposition to abortion, a
position widely shared by conservative evangelical Christians.

About 52 percent of Americans say they are Protestants,
although mainline churches are losing members as the
evangelical movement grows. Less than 2 percent of the U.S.
population is Jewish.

One anomaly is that 20 percent of U.S. Catholics are
Hispanic, yet none of the five who would be on the court is,
noted Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the
National Opinion Research Center in Chicago.

Religion "has pretty much become passe" as an issue, he
suggested, except to the degree that it becomes a hot potato in
nearly every U.S. presidential campaign when candidates define
their stand on abortion.

Opposition to Alito has come from groups worried that the
court would eliminate the right to abortion. Legal Momentum, a
woman's legal rights group, said it feared putting Alito on the
court would be "adversarial to a woman's right to choose."