Written by Don Byrd

An exchange during the Senate confirmation hearing of Notre Dame law professor, Amy Cone Barrett, who is President Trump’s nominee for federal appellate court judge in the 7th Circuit, has stirred anew important questions about the role of personal faith in public service, and a reminder that there is no religious test for office in the United States.

Barrett, who is Catholic, was asked about her personal religious convictions about abortion, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty, and her ability to apply the law even when it conflicts with those views. The questions seemed driven in part by a paper co-written by Barrett in law school nearly 20 years ago. Emma Green of The Atlantic reports the paper argues that “[i]n certain, limited circumstances … federal judges should step back from involvement in cases that might raise conflicts of conscience.”

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked, “Do you consider yourself an Orthodox Catholic?” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), sounding a bit like a mystical character out of Star Wars, remarked, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound like a compliment, and seems to reflect a troubling perspective: that a nominee’s personal religious beliefs might disqualify a nominee from serving as a federal judge. 

You can watch clips from the hearing here.

Earlier this year, questioning during another Senate confirmation hearing crossed the line by inquiring into a nominee’s views of salvation. The Baptist Joint Committee’s Amanda Tyler issued a statement expressing outrage that “the line of questioning imposed a religious test.” As I wrote at the time, conflating a nominee’s personal religious views with their political or policy views undermines the no-religious-test principle that is central to our constitutional religious liberty guarantees.

Senators should inquire into a judicial nominee’s views of the law, and their record interpreting it, without improperly investigating their personal religious views. There is no cause for suggesting that certain religious beliefs – no matter how loudly they are lived – are disqualifying from public service. The Constitution protects the religious liberty rights of all, even judges.