As many Americans mourn the death this past weekend of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the resulting news coverage about the impact the 79-year-old justice had on the country has ranged from his conservative politics to his Catholic faith.
Scalia, who was found dead of natural causes in his room at a Texas hunting resort Saturday morning, served on America's highest court since 1986 and his death presents an opportunity to make the Supreme Court more religiously diverse.
Five of the remaining justices are Catholic and three are Jewish, wrote Cathy Lynn Grossman in a Religion News Service column. She asked, "Do Protestants, no longer the majority strand of American culture, and folks with no religious identity see themselves (their values and vision of America) in the Supreme Court?"
The Supreme Court has never mirrored the racial or religious makeup of the U.S. as a whole, but the current panel of judges is a marked departure from historical patterns, as NPR reported in 2010.
After Justice John Paul Stevens, a Protestant, retired in 2010 and Justice Elena Kagan, who is Jewish, replaced him, the Supreme Court lacked a Protestant member for the first time in its more than 225-year history.
At the time, scholars were divided about whether this shift mattered. For example, Richard Garnett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame's law school, told NPR that religious Americans should appreciate a justice who has respect for the practice of faith in general, even if he or she doesn't belong to their denomination.
"For those Protestants in America for whom their faith is important, they can look to the court and say, 'Well, we do see representation on the court of people like us — people who take their religious faith and religious traditions seriously," he said.
Mark Scarberry, a law professor at Pepperdine University, told NPR there shouldn't be a religious test during the appointment process, but that he would support a president who allowed religious diversity to be one of many factors influencing the decision.
"When you have such a large part of the country that has a particular sort of religious worldview, if there is no one on the court who is able to understand that worldview in a sympathetic way, then that creates difficulties," he said.
In the wake of Scalia's death, Religion News Service reported that a unique religious shake-up could be in store for the Supreme Court. Sri Srinivasan, who is on the short list of potential nominees, could be the first Hindu to hold the prestigious position.
"The appeal of Srinivasan, who clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and argued more than two dozen cases before the high court as a deputy solicitor general, lies in his reputation as a moderate and the ease with which the Senate confirmed him to the appeals court," RNS reported.
As rumors about potential new justices (and their personal faith) swirl, it's valuable to note that religious background often doesn't predict how a person will rule, as Time reported. Scalia was well-known for his "Catholic core," but he disagreed with official church teachings on contentious issues like the death penalty.
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