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A Hindu Justice? Why Religion Matters for the High Court

02-16-2016
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President Barack Obama has pledged to appoint a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, despite election-year opposition from Republicans.

Scalia, 79, was found dead in his room the morning of Feb. 13 while on a quail hunting trip at a West Texas resort. He reportedly died in his sleep.

Tensions are rising over whether or not President Obama should leave the appointment of Scalia's replacement to his White House successor. Tessa Dysart, a constitutional law professor at Regent University, explains the complicated road ahead.

Meanwhile, the president's list of possible replacements for Justice Scalia has now been leaked to the media. It includes:

  • Sri Srinivasan, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the District of Columbia circuit,
  • Merrick Garland, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit,
  • Attorney General Loretta Lynch,
  • Former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, who is now a Georgetown law professor,
  • Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson,
  • Solicitor General Don Verrilli,
  • Former Attorney General Eric Holder

Srinivasan, 48, seems to be a popular choice at the moment. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and has argued more than two dozen cases before the court as a deputy solicitor general. 

He was appointed unanimously to the D.C. Appeals Court. When he was sworn into office, he placed his hand on Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy book. If confirmed, would be the first Hindu to serve on the high court.

Meanwhile, an NPR article titled "Does the Supreme Court need an Evangelical Justice?" raises the issue about the religious makeup of the court.

A 2013 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than one in three (37 percent) U.S. adults say Supreme Court justices' religious beliefs shape their decisions on the bench "a lot." Another 44 percent say religion influences justices just a little, while 15 percent said religious beliefs "have no influence."

Justice Scalia, a devout Catholic and a Ronald Reagan appointee, was one of the most conservative members of the bench and was known for his Christian core.  His death brings the religious balance of the court into question.

There are five Roman Catholics currently serving on the court (Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas) and three Jews (Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagen).

Scalia's untimely death leaves conservatives without the 5-4 advantage they had on the court and has many wondering who will fill the void he leaves behind. With upcoming cases over abortion and religious liberty, the stakes are high.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, acknowledged the gravity of Scalia's loss and its timing.

"His death comes at a time when so much hangs in the legal balance, especially on questions of religious freedom," Moore told Baptist Press in written comments.

"Antonin Scalia was more than a brilliant jurist," he said. "He was a man of conviction who stood, often alone, for the permanent things."

So whether Scalia is replaced by a Jewish, Catholic, or evangelical, etc., justice, many agree that Scalia will be impossible to replace.

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