As of this writing in early September, there are two vacancies in the Supreme Court, making this a time of great concern and tremendous opportunity. When President Bush introduced Judge John Roberts to the nation on July 19, he said, "When a president chooses a justice, he's placing in human hands the authority and majesty of the law."

 

Interpreting the Constitution for a nation as diverse as the United States is a difficult and solemn task, yet it is one left to human beings who bring with them their personalities, issues, and characters. The death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor could mean decades of tremendous changes as new people with different perspectives take their seats.

 

Since President Reagan appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1981, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor consistently provided centrist opinions closely tailored to the facts of the cases themselves. By so doing, she largely avoided the enticing trap of broad generalizations that harm minorities and create bad legal precedent for future generations.

 

Throughout her career, O'Connor emphasized reasonable separation of church and state and issued a warning when she recently wrote that, "It is true that the Framers lived at a time when our national religious diversity was neither as robust nor as well recognized as it is now. But they did know that line-drawing between religions is an enterprise that, once began, has no logical stopping point." [1]

 

Unfortunately, in the name of pragmatism, the majority of the justices on the Court in recent years have eroded the Constitutional protections that we used to depend upon to protect freedom of religious practices of minorities.[2]  O'Connor understood the dangers when she wrote in Smith that, "the First Amendment was enacted precisely to protect the rights of those whose religious practices are not shared by the majority and may be viewed with hostility. The history of our free exercise doctrine amply demonstrates the harsh impact majoritarian rule has had on unpopular or emerging religious groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Amish."

 

Although Adventists are an integral part of the Christian community, we hold distinctive beliefs, including the Sabbath, that could be viewed with hostility when they come into conflict with the goals of the religious "majority." Whenever the courts limit the free exercise of other religious groups, our protections are also eroded.

 

Today, the religion clauses of the First Amendment are vigorously contested. Some conservatives sense that the moral framework of this nation is disintegrating and they demand that this nation "return" to the Christian roots of the founders. They believe that traditional, evangelical Christianity is the only religion which is acceptable and that when the government recognizes religious minorities as equally valid, it waters down the "foundation" of this nation. They have demanded the government limit the expression of other religious beliefs while promoting a "majority" "civic religion."[3]

 

On the other hand, and equally as troubling, some liberal groups have argued that the government should be more involved in controlling what happens in the church. Some radical groups have gone as far as to claim that spreading the gospel is "hate speech," and that the state has the primary right to raise children.

 

As Adventists, we are nearly unique in our position as both defenders of separation of church and state and preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of this, we have a huge stake in how the Supreme Court rules on these issues. The North American Religious Liberty Association, our Adventist-sponsored judicial watchdog, has asked the Senate to quiz potential nominees about their views on the separation of church and state. We want to do all we can to make sure that the nominees chosen are those who want to protect religious freedom.

 

The new Justices will be facing a difficult calling when this year's session begins on October 3 – to preserve our great freedoms while protecting our most vulnerable. By any standard, this is not an easy job.  Let us pray that they will be granted the wisdom of Solomon to make decisions that preserve "liberty and justice for all."

 

[1] See McCreary County v. ACLU (June 2005)

[2] See Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[3] See Simpson v. Chesterfield County (April 2005) (4th Cir.) – available online at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data2/circs/4th/041045p.pdf

 

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