There are times when I can’t help but laugh at the viewing-with-alarm that is the stock-in-trade for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In the most recent issue of their publication “Church and State,” Sandhya Bathija has a piece entitled “Critical Mass” that views-with-alarm a Roman Catholic practice of fifty years’ standing, the so-called “Red Mass.”
For those not acquainted with this particular piece of Washington arcana, the Red Mass (the color refers to the vestments worn by officiants) is held every year on the Sunday before the start of the new Supreme Court term. A variety of capitol heavyweights, from the president and vice-president to the Supremes. At the Mass, the sermon is frequently dedicated to addressing the concerns the Catholic hierarchy has on social and other issues; among those that have been addressed directly or indirectly are school vouchers, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
People like Archbishop Donald Wuerl can, of course, address these subjects any time they want, including during sermons. Attendance is hardly mandatory (indeed, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has only been once, and refuses to go as long as the preachers are so impolitic as to address issues of concern to them), and the people involved are all very well educated adults who are presumably capable of thinking for themselves. But that doesn’t stop AU from firing the big guns:
The Catholic hierarchy claims the mass is merely “a traditional religious observance asking God’s guidance on the administration of justice, and for the Nation.” But for church-state separationists, the service is an unnecessary mixing of religion and government, law and sectarian doctrine.
“The justices aren’t there to just sing songs and shake people’s hands,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “They are invited specifically to hear how members of the church hierarchy feel about certain social issues of the day.”
Oh, the humanity! People expressing opinions in front of Supreme Court justices! People from a church expressing opinions in front of Supreme Court justices! Dogs and cats living together!
Does it not occur to the Rev. Lynn that maybe, just maybe, some or even all of the justices might go to religious services on a regular or occasional basis? And that, given that six of them are Catholics, that they might have heard whatever they hear at the Red Mass somewhere before? It may even be that–perish the thought, but it is possible–some or all of the Catholic justices have even (whisper it) studied the teachings of their church, and hence come to the Red Mass with a certain understanding of the church’s position on the subjects addressed?
As for the worry of AU that “the service is an unnecessary mixing of religion and government, law and sectarian doctrine,” one can only respond: butt out. No candidates were endorsed, so any viewing-with-alarm comes across as nothing more than the statist impulse to prevent people from being exposed to notions that AU considers unacceptable.
Bathija rehearses a lot of history, including lots of supposedly objectionable things that Catholic bishops have said, but it all seems to come down to this:
Despite the church hierarchy’s claims, the Red Mass has always been a church-state concern. When it comes to difficult legal questions, it’s hard to know how much of a role faith will play in the justices’ decisions, if at all, said AU’s Lynn.
“We worry about this kind of undue influence,” said Lynn. “They might hear something that could become a lingering factor in their decisions.”
He went on to propose that Supreme Court justices should be prohibited from watching television, listening to the radio, surfing the Internet, or allowed to read anything other than legal briefs generated by Americans United attorneys. They should not be allowed to speak to their spouses except on birthdays and anniversaries (lest the latter’s religious convictions exert undue influence over the otherwise empty-headed judges). Perhaps most importantly, they should never, ever be allowed to attend any religious services where anything about God might come up. He offered a list of suitable United Church of Christ congregations as examples of acceptable alternatives.