During a speech last week at a banquet for the (Churches of Christ-affiliated) Pepperdine University School of Law, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas perpetuated the conservative lie about how Democrats are imposing a religious test on potential judicial nominees before suggesting atheists can’t be trusted.
This myth kicked into high gear in 2017 when Sen. Dianne Feinstein questioned Amy Coney Barrett about how her beliefs might influence her decisions as a federal judge. It was a good question, considering Barrett had once written a paper about the role of Catholic judges in death penalty cases (since Catholics believe the death penalty is immoral). Barrett suggested Catholic judges could recuse themselves from such matters to avoid conflict, but added that there were times when they shouldn’t step away. Since Barrett made her faith an issue, it was absolutely fair game to ask her about it.
Anyway, Thomas said that sort of questioning was a form of religious persecution.
“I thought we got away from religious tests,” Thomas, himself a Catholic, said at Pepperdine University School of Law. “I don’t think I know a single judge that had allowed religion to interfere with their jobs.”
Thomas said that he had discussions about faith with the late-Justice Antonin Scalia and that they both felt that it would be a “violation of his oath to somehow allow his faith to displace the law.”
“Because we took an oath to enforce the law and interpret it impartially, and he took it very seriously,” he said.
Just because you’re not citing the catechism in a decision doesn’t mean faith doesn’t influence you. Openly devout Catholics, for example, need to be asked if they can objectively look at cases involving LGBTQ rights or abortion. No one’s saying they can’t be confirmed, only that asking these questions isn’t off limits.
The worst thing Thomas said, though, came later, when he questioned the legitimacy of atheists in similar roles.
… Thomas said it was interesting that skepticism of faith came in a profession where many take an oath before taking office.
“I think it’s interesting in a profession where we all take an oath, that they would look at people who have strong faith as somehow not good people, when, if you’re an atheist, what does an oath mean?”
That’s the sort of right-wing hypocrisy we’ve come to expect from people like Thomas. Not only does he create a straw man out of the legitimate questioning — as if asking about nominees’ beliefs suggests they’re “not good people” — he also says oaths taken by atheists are meaningless presumably because they’re not made to his God.
Bullshit. We can take an oath on the Constitution because we care about the rule of law. We can take an oath on anything meaningful because we care about the roles we are undertaking. Just because you don’t place your hand on a Bible doesn’t mean you’re not taking your job seriously.
Plus, if this administration is any indication, taking an oath on the Bible doesn’t mean much of anything either, given how many scandals Trump’s officials have been embroiled in.
Thomas’ bigotry is exactly why judges must be questioned about their stated beliefs. Anything that suggests they might rule in a way meant to please God instead of following our laws deserves to be called out.
***Update***: Thomas also says in that clip that people of faith, who swear an oath on the Bible, work “doubly hard to make sure you live up to it.”