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Faith and the Bench: A Look at Sen. Lindsey Graham's Questioning of Ketanji Brown Jackson

During a tense, three-minute exchange, the Republican senator raised questions about Jackson's faith in order to make a point about Democrats' treatment of Amy Coney Barrett.

Published Mar 23, 2022

Photos of the 2020 Parsons Dinner, which honors a different distinguished African-American federal jurist each year. (Wikicago/Wikimedia Commons)
Photos of the 2020 Parsons Dinner, which honors a different distinguished African-American federal jurist each year. (Image Via Wikicago/Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., questioned Supreme Court nominee and federal appeals court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson about her religious affiliation during confirmation hearings in late March 2022. President Joe Biden had nominated Jackson as an associate justice, in a bid to place the first Black woman on the highest U.S. court. 

Graham's line of questioning brought back tensions between Republicans and Democrats over the religious affiliations of Supreme Court nominees and how those affiliations might affect their impartiality on the bench. While he was the first member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to explicitly question Jackson about her faith, Republicans like Sen. Marsha Blackburn did too, alluding to the Democrats' questioning of Justice Amy Coney Barrett on her conservative Catholic connections back in 2020.

The exchange can be seen in the clip below:

Graham questioned Jackson for around 30 minutes, and discussed her religious faith for under three minutes. A clip of their full exchange can be seen here:

Graham started by asking Jackson, “What faith are you by the way?” to which she responded, “I am Protestant, non-denominational.”

Because Supreme Court justices are often expected to rule on cases that involve religious liberty, the religious views of nominees have become a subject of scrutiny during confirmation hearings. Cases that pit nondiscrimination laws (particularly pertaining to LGBTQ rights) against assertions of religious freedom (particularly those of conservative religious groups) have highlighted this tension. And the current bench, which leans towards conservatism, has often ruled in favor of religious claimants. In 2018, a majority of the justices said that a small business could refuse to serve gay customers because of their religious objection to same-sex marriage. Then, in 2021, a majority of justices, including the recently appointed, conservative-leaning Barrett, ruled that during the COVID-19 pandemic, houses of worship should be considered "essential services" for purposes of lockdown enforcement.

As such, the confirmation processes for the Trump appointee Barrett (specifically, in her case, to the circuit court in 2017), and now Biden appointee Jackson, involved questioning about their religious affiliations and whether they would result in biased rulings on key issues. 

The transcript of that portion of the Graham/Jackson exchange can be read below (emphasis ours):

Graham: Thank you. Judge, again. Congratulations [...] I want to talk to you a little bit about family and faith because in your opening statement, and the people who introduced you, the committee. There was very glowing praise of you as a person, a good friend. You have a wonderful family, you should be proud and your faith matters to you. What faith are you by the way?

Jackson: Senator, I am Protestant.

Graham: Hmm. Okay?

Jackson: Non-denominational.

Graham: Okay? Could you fairly judge a Catholic?

Jackson: Senator, I have a record of fairly judging everyone.

Graham: I believe you can. I am just asking this question because, how important is your faith to you?

Jackson: Senator personally, my faith is very important. But as you know, there's no religious test in the Constitution under Article 6 and …

Graham: And there will be none with me …

Jackson: It's very important to set aside one's personal views about things in the role of a judge.

Graham: I couldn't agree with you more. And I believe you can. So on a scale of 1 to 10, how faithful would you say you are in terms of religion? You know, I go to church probably three times a year, so that speaks poorly of me. Do you attend church regularly?

Jackson: Well, Senator, I am reluctant to talk about my faith in this way. Just because I want to be mindful of the need for the public to have confidence in my ability to separate out my personal views.

Jackson was referring to clause 3 of Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution which states, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

During the exchange, Graham launched into an aside over how he thought Barrett had been “treated very, very poorly” on account of her faith. Though Jackson was not involved in the Barrett hearings, he said to her, “How would you feel if a senator up here said your faith, the dogma lives loudly within you and that’s of concern? How would you feel if somebody up here on our side said, you know, you attend church too much for me or your faith is a little bit different to me and they would suggest that it would affect your decision. Would you find that offensive? I would, if I were you.”

To be clear, Graham was referring not to Barrett's Supreme Court confirmation hearing, but rather to the hearing to confirm her as a nominee to the circuit court in 2017, when Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein did say to the conservative Catholic judge, "The dogma lives loudly within you," resulting in accusations of religious bias from Republicans. Democrats did not bring up religious questions during hearings on Barrett's appointment to the Supreme Court, even when questioning her on issues like abortion. (In a previous article, Snopes looked into Barrett's relationship with her conservative Catholic faith, particularly with People of Praise, a charismatic Christian group.)

As Jackson sat through Graham's comments about Barrett with a neutral expression, he continued, “I am convinced that whatever faith you have and how often you go to church, it will not affect your ability to be fair, and I just hope going in the future that we all can accept that [...] Judge Barrett, I thought, was treated very, very poorly.”

Graham’s questioning continued to be tense as he pressed her on her defense of Guantanamo detainees while she was an attorney. He abruptly left soon after questioning Jackson on this.


Sources:

“Did Amy Coney Barrett’s Religious Group Inspire ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/amy-barrett-handmaids-tale/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

Green, Steven K. “How the Supreme Court Found Its Faith and Put ‘religious Liberty’ on a Winning Streak.” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/how-the-supreme-court-found-its-faith-and-put-religious-liberty-on-a-winning-streak-158509. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

Hurley, Lawrence. “Ketanji Brown Jackson’s U.S. Supreme Court Nod Follows Multifaceted Legal Career.” Reuters, 25 Feb. 2022. www.reuters.com, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/ketanji-brown-jacksons-us-supreme-court-nomination-follows-varied-legal-career-2022-02-25/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2022.

"Jackson Confirmation Hearing, Day 2." CSPAN, 2022, https://www.c-span.org/video/?518342-1/confirmation-hearing-supreme-court-nominee-ketanji-brown-jackson-day-2&live. Accessed 23 Mar. 2022.

“Sen. Graham Presses Ketanji Brown Jackson to Rate Her Religious Faith ‘on a Scale of 1 to 10.’” Washington Post, 22 Mar. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/22/sen-lindsey-graham-ketanji-brown-jackson-questioned-religious-faith-scale-one-10/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2022.

"The U.S. Constitution: Article 6, Clause 3." Congress.gov. https://constitution.congress.gov/browse/article-6/clause-3/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

"Video: Sen. Lindsey Graham Questions Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson." CNN Video, 23 Mar. 2022. https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2022/03/23/lindsey-graham-ketanji-brown-jackson-hearing-mh-orig.cnn. Accessed 23 Mar. 2022.

Walsh, Deirdre. “Takeaways From Amy Coney Barrett’s Judiciary Confirmation Hearings.” NPR, 15 Oct. 2020. NPR, https://www.npr.org/2020/10/15/923637375/takeaways-from-amy-coney-barretts-judiciary-confirmation-hearings. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.

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