A Few Very Hard Questions About Religion and the Court

By Eric Segall

A number of years ago I sat on a long plane ride next to an orthodox Jewish man. We struck up a conversation and found out that we each had three children. I have three daughters while he told me he had two daughters and a son. When I told him I was a law professor, he told me with delight that both of his sons had expressed some interest in going to law school. I asked him about his daughter and he said that she would, of course, be a wife and mother and take care of the home. I expressed surprise at this (naive I know), and asked him what his teen daughter thought about these differing expectations based on gender. The man said that she didn't have a choice but in any event his daughter was quite comfortable with this life plan. I asked him if I could speak freely and he kindly responded in the affirmative. I asked him how he could possibly justify limiting his daughter this way especially in light of how proud he sounded about his sons wanting to be lawyers. His response was that this is the way they live, it works, and he saw no need to alter this lifestyle for his daughter.

Here is my question: if this man were nominated to be a federal judge, should his views on gender disqualify him from the position?

Before turning to that question, let's agree on one thing. A federal judicial nominee who in a confirmation hearing testified that he did not think women should be CEO's, Senators, lawyers, or bankers because their proper place is in the home and that we would all be better off with more precise gender roles would not be confirmed. 

Does the calculus change if the nominee testifies exactly the same way but says his views are based on sincere religious faith?

Hold that question.

The Constitution provides in no uncertain terms in Article VI that "no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public trust under the United States." I am glad we have this provision and no one should ever be asked about their faith as a precondition for Senate confirmation as a federal judge.

But does Article IV prohibit all questioning about a nominee's views that are part of his faith? The answer to this, I think, has to be no. To take a wild example first, if it were part of a person's sincere religious faith that sometimes children have to be sacrificed to the gods in cases of terrible climate events, it would be more than fair to disqualify that person from holding judicial office based on that opinion irrespective of its basis. Similarly, if a nominee said his faith requires him to believe that white and black school children should never go to school together, he too should not be allowed to become a judge, not because of his faith but because of his obviously racist views.

So, returning to my orthodox Jewish friend, if he testified that he believed the only legitimate career path for girls and women is to be wives and mothers and he was rejected for holding that view, is that a religious test for public office? I think the answer has to be no. He would not be rejected for his faith, i.e., his views on the afterlife or his membership in a religious group; he would be rejected because of values he holds that affect the secular world. 

What if the nominee who holds these kinds of sexist or religious views says he can and will put them aside when deciding cases? At first that may seem like a more difficult question, but is it? Imagine a nominee who says that his personal views are that whites are superior to Blacks and men are superior to women but that he would of course put aside those views in his official role as a judge. Could and should that person be given a federal judgeship? Of course not.

Now imagine that the racist and sexist views above are expressed as part of a wholesale and sincere religious belief system. Does and should that matter? I don't think so because there is no reason to think the religious bigot will be any more capable than the secular bigot of discarding his personal views. Moreover, do sexism and racism become more tolerable because they are based on religious views, not secular ones? I don't think so, as I wrote here.

This is not to say that the government should interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations that hold such views. That is quite a different question and in most contexts the answer should be no. But the government not interfering with religious activities and the government requiring people to not hold racist and sexist beliefs as a pre-requisite to public office are very different things.

Based on the above, I think it would be fair to say to the orthodox Jewish man that his views on the proper role for girls and women disqualify him from being a judge, just as he would be disqualified if he believed whites and Blacks should be separated under the law even if he says that's only a personal, religious view that he can set aside as a judge.

Now imagine a nominee for a federal judgeship who said that her faith teaches her that life begins at conception and that abortion must be banned at all times and in all places with no exceptions, and she would not put aside those views when deciding abortion cases and would not recuse in such cases. Would her rejection be the same as a religious test for public office? I think we would all agree the answer is no. What if she said that she would put aside those religious views when deciding cases? Would her disqualification be illegal as a religious test for public office by pro-choice Senators? I don't think so. Her rejection would be based on her views about abortion, not her association with a particular religion.

In other words, to disqualify a person based on a view that they happen to hold because of their religion, when one would also disqualify a person who held the same view based on secular premises, is not imposing a religious test for public office.

Now imagine the following dialogue between a Senator and a judicial nominee:

Senator: "Professor Smith I want ask you whether you agree with your church's position that women cannot be leaders in your church. Do you agree with that rule?"

Professor Smith: "No Senator, I do not. I am proudly (name a religion) but I do not agree with all of the policies and rules of my religious leaders and that is one I do not agree with. However, I want to add that I am also a proud American and I do not agree with many of President Biden's policies. But I can no more shed my Americanism than I could shed my _ism."

I think we can all agree that this church's position on women should not disqualify this nominee.

Now imagine a different dialogue:

Senator: "Professor Smith I want ask you whether you agree with your church's position that women cannot be leaders in your church. Do you agree with that rule?"

Professor Smith: "Yes I do, Senator. I would not allow that view to affect my decisions as a judge, including in gender-related cases, but I do agree with my church that women should not be leaders in the church."

Before thinking about how to handle that answer, let's remember that a person who said he thinks the world would be a better place if women (or Black people) were excluded from being mayors, governors, CEO's, judges, and presidents would surely not be confirmed and surely shouldn't be confirmed.

Of course that hypothetical isn't the same because a church is different than the government or a private organization. But is the view that women (or Black people) shouldn't lead such organizations any less pernicious because it is based on faith, not secular values? 

I think the answer might depend on the reasons the nominee gives for her agreement that women (or Black people) should be excluded from leading whichever faith she is associated with. But the more important question is would such a line of questioning be improper? 

I think not. And if that is true, than questions about a nominee's views on abortion should also be proper, regardless of whether they flow from faith, reason, or something else. If a Senator in good faith believes that women can never be equal in our country without the ability to control their reproductive destinies or if a Senator believes in good faith that abortion is always murder, then asking prospective judges about their views on abortion, or any other issue with secular consequences, should be allowed and is not barred as a religious test for public office.

But, I'm not sure.