March 2006 Church & State | People & Events

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg no longer attends the “Red Mass” – a Roman Catholic service for members of the legal profession in Washington – because she doesn’t want to be lectured by bishops on the evils of legal abortion.

Ginsburg made the confession in author Abigail Pogrebin’s recent book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. During Pogrebin’s interview with Ginsburg, which was excerpted in Moment magazine last month, the high court justice recounted her discomfort after attending a Red Mass shortly after she was placed on the court by President Bill Clinton.

“Before every session, there’s a Red Mass,” Ginsburg said. “And the justices get invitations from the cardinal to attend that. And a good number of the justices show up every year. I went one year, and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion.”

Added Ginsburg, “Even the Scalias – although they’re much of that persuasion – were embarrassed for me.”

Church officials often use the Red Mass to promote church stands on legal abortion, gay rights, government aid to religious schools and other contentious social issues. Many Washington dignitaries attend the annual event, including President George W. Bush and members of his cabinet.

Ginsburg told Pogrebin she is not religiously observant but said her Judaism matters greatly to her. The frame of her office door contains a mezuzah, a small rectangular case found on many Jewish homes that serves as a symbolic reminder of the presence of God.

“At Christmas around here, every door has a wreath,” Ginsburg said. “I received this mezuzah from the Shula­mith School for Girls in Brooklyn, and it’s a way of saying, ‘This is my space, and please don’t put a wreath on this door.’”

The high court’s other Jewish justice, Stephen Breyer, recently discussed his views on church-state separation at Kesher Israel Congregation in Washing­ton, D.C. Breyer said he sees the separation policy as the best vehicle to minimize societal conflict in a nation of many faiths.

For example, Breyer said he voted against vouchers for religious schools because it “involved billions of billions of dollars…to parochial schools, and I was concerned about the possibility of real conflict arising if that amount of money” were allocated based on religion, reported Washington Jewish Week.

Breyer told attendees that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” grew out of a desire to avoid Europe’s religious wars. He added that the clause’s understanding has evolved over time.

“The Founders did engage in a lot of activities that would be forbidden today under…current interpretations of the Establishment Clause,” he said, adding that the Founders lived in a mainly homogeneous nation.