Let’s Be Honest About Religion and the Courts

Let’s Be Honest About Religion and the Courts

As Amy Coney Barrett wrote herself, religious convictions are real and influential on judges.

As Amy Coney Barrett was hurriedly advanced to the highest court in America, the notion that her religion might influence judicial decisions became almost completely taboo, tantamount to anti-religious bigotry. Judges look to the law, not to God. Their holy texts have no bearing on their interpretation of legal texts. How dare anyone suggest otherwise?

Yet this absurd position runs against everything we know about human psychology and the role of religion, or lack of it, in people’s lives. Pretending that influence doesn’t exist distorts our understanding of the courts by substituting fantasy for reality. Just as financial incentives can create conflicts of interest that influence scientific conclusions and legal findings, religious ideology can do the same. In fact, it demeans religious belief to think there’s no connection. Individual faith arguably exerts at least as much influence on their decision-making as the promise of financial rewards.

But don’t take it from me—take it from Amy Coney Barrett herself. In 1998, she co-authored an article for the Marquette Law Review that acknowledged the difficulty of deciding death penalty cases for Catholic judges and argued that they should consider recusing themselves. “We believe that Catholic judges (if they are faithful to the teaching of their church) are morally precluded from enforcing the death penalty,” she wrote.