King’s Host Faculty and Alumni Panel on Recent Supreme Court Decisions
The King’s College hosted a special faculty and alumni panel entitled, “How Should Christians Reflect on Recent SCOTUS Decisions?”
On September 14, The King’s College hosted a special faculty and alumni panel entitled, “How Should Christians Reflect on Recent SCOTUS Decisions?”
Moderated by Dr. David Tubbs, Associate Professor of Politics, the virtual panel discussion featured Dr. Joseph Griffith, Assistant Professor of Politics, and alumni Bethany Pickett (PPE ’12), Associate at Jackson Walker LLP, Josh Craddock (PPE ’13), Affiliated Scholar at the James Wilson Institute, and Chris Ross (PPE ’10), Senior Managing Associate at Sidley Austin LLP. The panel was brought together to discuss the most recent Supreme Court term (2021-22) and address cases such as Carson v. Makin, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.
Tubbs opened the panel discussion by asking what Christians should think of some of the momentous rulings of the last Supreme Court term. In Carson v. Makin, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court handed down historic rulings that are sure to affect the lives of Americans everywhere. Dr. Tubbs pointed out that much of the controversy surrounding the Supreme Court comes from the exercise of judicial review, which is the power of a court to declare a law unconstitutional. While judicial review is a power not explicitly granted to the Supreme Court in the Constitution, many experts believe that it is implied in the Constitution. Tubbs then turned the discussion over to the panelists as they spoke about both the inner workings and recent decisions of the Supreme Court.
Bethany Pickett, the first panelist to speak, shared her knowledge of the judicial appointment process, by which judicial nominees are either confirmed or denied appointment to the federal bench. Pickett worked in the White House as Deputy Associate Counsel to the President and was awarded the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award for her work on the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Pickett spoke about the importance of the judicial appointment process in choosing judges who uphold the Constitution’s original public meaning. When a president considers whether to nominate someone to be a federal judge, the candidate’s background, writings, opinions, and prior work as a judge or lawyer is analyzed to more fully understand the candidate’s judicial philosophy. The Justice Department also conducts a background investigation of the candidate.
Once the president nominates a candidate, the nominee is then required to send a lengthy questionnaire, called the Senate Judiciary Questionnaire, to the United States Senate. After receiving the questionnaire, the Senate Judiciary Committee schedules a hearing on the nomination.
A hearing for a nominee to the Supreme Court consists of four days, while a hearing for a lower court nominee is only a few hours. After the hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee schedules a vote on the nomination. If the Committee recommends the nominee, the nominee moves to the full Senate for a vote, where the potential justice or other federal judge must receive a majority of the Senate’s support to be confirmed.
Why should Christians care about the process it takes to become a Supreme Court Justice? Pickett argued that Christians should recognize that both Supreme Court justices and other federal judges have an outsized impact on the future of our country. “This is every president’s greatest legacy,” Pickett said. “Generations will either benefit or suffer from the consequences of these judges’ decisions. When you vote for a president you’re not just voting for one candidate—you’re voting for hundreds of judges that the president will appoint.”
Carson v. Makin
The next panelist to speak was Dr. Joseph Griffith, who spoke about Carson v. Makin. This case involved the state of Maine and the use of state funds for religious schools. Griffith noted that Maine launched a tuition assistance program to help parents living in rural communities without a secondary school. Starting in 1981, however, Maine prohibited these funds from being used for tuition at private, sectarian schools. Two parents eventually sued the state, on the grounds that the government may not prohibit the free exercise of religion.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the state of Maine in this case, holding that the program excluded schools on the basis of their religious identification, disqualifying some private schools from funding solely because they are religious. The law effectively targets and penalizes the free exercise of religion. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that “Maine’s tuition assistance program explicitly discriminates against religious institutions, and therefore violates the free exercise clause.”
Griffith said that the ruling, in this case, was not surprising. While the dissenting justices argued that this ruling forced the state to pay for religious education, Chief Justice Roberts maintained that while Maine is not required to help defray the costs of private education, if it does, then it cannot discriminate against some schools on the basis of religion.
While Griffith acknowledged that committed Christians may have different opinions on the outcome of this case, parents have a right to direct the education of their children, whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. The state should not be able to effectively penalize parents for providing a religious education for their children.
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization
Next, panelist Josh Craddock spoke on the Dobbs v. Jackson case. Craddock began by providing the history of Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). In Roe, seven justices determined that the Constitution required states to allow abortions. Craddock said that Roe was widely criticized when it was made, even by legal scholars who supported abortion. Why? Because the Fourteenth Amendment does not contain any express right to privacy, and because the purported “right to abortion” has no basis on American history or tradition. The Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process of law was cited in 1965 to generate a “right to privacy,” which was then incorrectly applied to abortion.
When the Supreme Court decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, the Court reaffirmed the “essential holding” of Roe, while adding that states could regulate abortion after fetal viability as long as this didn’t place an “undue burden” on women seeking an abortion. But according to Craddock, fetal viability is a moving target based on medical science, not principle, and flies in the face of the Christian belief that every human being is made in the image of God.
Regarding Dobbs v. Jackson, Craddock pointed out that Mississippi passed a law prohibiting most abortions after 15 weeks gestation, setting up a constitutional challenge with the Supreme Court’s previous rulings on abortion. After an unprecedented leak of a draft opinion, the Supreme Court decided 6-3 to uphold the Mississippi law and decided 5-4 to overturn Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood. In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, overturning the precedents set in these earlier cases. The practical effect of this ruling was not to ban abortion nationwide, but rather to allow states to decide for themselves whether to allow abortion.
Craddock said that Christians should celebrate the Dobbs ruling not only for correcting a great constitutional error but also because the ruling moves us closer to justice and the recognition of an unborn child as a bearer of God-given rights. “This decision,” Craddock said, “gets us one step closer towards the Christian ideal written down in our Declaration of Independence that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including the right to life.
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District
The last panelist to share was Chris Ross, who spoke on the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case. This case involved a high school football coach who prayed after football games and dealt with how individual public employees can exercise religious observance in the workplace.
Ross noted that Mr. Joseph Kennedy, in his position as a high school football coach, was engaging in silent prayer, group prayer, and sharing religious messages in the locker room. The school district that employed him believed that these activities violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and that it could not allow him to do these things. From the perspective of the school district, people might feel coerced to participate in what would appear to be school-sanctioned religious acts. Despite being warned by the school district to stop praying around students, Coach Kennedy continued because he believed that his prayers were constitutionally protected. The school district responded by firing him.
In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Kennedy. The Court held that nothing in the Constitution required a public school to prohibit religious expression. It also held that the school could not suppress the coach’s religious expressions. While the school district argued that allowing Coach Kennedy to pray after games would violate the Establishment Clause and work to establish a state-sponsored religion, the Supreme Court found this argument unpersuasive. It ruled that a school or government actor cannot forbid an activity solely on the basis that someone might feel coerced to participate.
When reflecting on how Christians should approach this Supreme Court case, Ross stressed that it is important that governments not have the power to restrain the free exercise of religion. He believes that this ruling shows “religious people that they do not need to tamp down on their beliefs and encourages Christians to be courageous to display their faith in society.” Ross cautioned that Christians should be prudent by not requiring anyone to affirm Christian beliefs.
After Ross’s presentation, Dr. Tubbs moderated the Q & A. Panelists answered questions submitted by members of the audience and offered additional thoughts on the complexities of interpreting the Constitution.