Racial Equality

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Confirmation Hearing Shows Her Potential To Defend Church-State Separation

  Samantha Sokol

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped up its hearing on the historic Supreme Court nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is extraordinarily qualified. During the many hours of questions – including many asked in bad faith – Jackson gave us some insight into how she might view religious freedom issues. Although she does not have an extensive record ruling on these issues on the lower bench, Jackson showed promise that she will be a defender of church-state separation on the Supreme Court.

Here are some highlights:

First, Jackson committed to set aside her personal religious views when ruling as a judge. As a person of faith, she authentically described the role of religion in her own life, but promised not to impose her religious beliefs on the law.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) grilled Jackson with questions on her personal religious beliefs, including how often she goes to church, and demanded that she rate her religiosity on a scale from 1-10. Jackson rightly explained that Article VI of the U.S. Constitution bars religious tests for public office. She ultimately declined to answer Graham’s invasive questions because she is “mindful of the need for the public to have confidence in my ability to separate out my personal views.”

This was a great response. Being religious doesn’t make Jackson any more or less qualified to serve on the court – and her religious beliefs are her own business. What matters is her commitment to church-state separation and setting her personal religious beliefs aside.

She emphasized this commitment when asked about abortion rights, too. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asked Jackson if she had a personal belief about when life begins. Jackson answered, “I have a religious belief that I set aside when I am ruling on cases.” A judge should never impose their religious beliefs about abortion, or any other policy issue, on the law that governs us all.

Second, Jackson demonstrated an understanding of the Constitution’s protections for religious freedom. When asked by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) about the First Amendment’s protections for religious exercise, Jackson responded, that “the free exercise of religion, and the Establishment Clause, which prevents the government from preferring one religion over another, is foundational.”

By bringing up the Establishment Clause, too, Jackson elucidates a key truth about the First Amendment: The Free Exercise and the Establishment Clauses work together to ensure religious freedom for all of us. Without church-state separation, there is no religious freedom.

Jackson gave us another glimpse into her understanding of religious freedom in an exchange with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Cornyn complained that the court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed marriage equality for LGBTQ Americans, conflicted with the sincerely held religious beliefs of some people. This was Jackson’s response: “That is the nature of a right. When there is a right, it means that there are limitations on regulation, even if people are regulating pursuant to their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Jackson’s answer demonstrates the Do No Harm principle that is central to religious freedom: While religious freedom protects everyone’s right to practice their religion – or no religion – it does not permit us to harm other people or take away their rights. We were heartened to see Jackson defend the right to marriage against efforts to misuse religious freedom to allow discrimination.

In sum, Jackson proved a strong commitment to set her religious beliefs aside in her role as a judge, and a nuanced understanding of religious freedom. With a conservative Supreme Court majority set on chipping away at church-state separation and misusing religious freedom as a sword to harm others, we need a justice who will champion these principles. We hope that Jackson will become the defender of church-state separation on the court that we need and deserve.

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