Jewish senators alarmed by Alito’s pro-Christian agenda

Jewish Democratic senators are alarmed by conservative Justice Samuel Alito’s sympathy for basing government on Christian principles — something he expressed at a Supreme Court gala when he endorsed the idea of returning the nation to a place of “godliness.”

Democratic senators, including several Jewish lawmakers, fear Alito’s majority opinions in several high-profile cases, such as the Dobbs decision, which overturned the right to abortion, were driven by his religious views.

And they are not buying Alito’s claim that he had nothing to do with and couldn’t prevent the flying of an “Appeal to Heaven” flag, a symbol of the Christian nationalist movement, at his New Jersey beach house.

Senate Democrats say members of the Supreme Court have a right to religious freedom but warn that when they try to impose their religious views on others, it crosses a line.

A Jewish Democratic senator who requested anonymity to comment on Alito said he is pushing a sectarian religious agenda on the court.

“I don’t think there’s really any doubt. I don’t think Alito and [conservative Justice Clarence] Thomas are being shy. They have a view of the world, and they’re trying to establish an official religion, and a specific denomination,” the lawmaker said.

Five of the court’s conservative justices are Catholic, and a sixth, Justice Neil Gorsuch, was raised as a Catholic but also attends Episcopal services.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who is Jewish, said it’s alarming “when you take a look at Dobbs and see how the majority in the Supreme Court could disregard precedent that protects the individual against the abuses of power,” including what he called the power of “religious fundamentalism.”

He said the conservative majority’s erosion of individual rights, including the right to abortion and potentially the right to contraception or same-sex marriage, is especially worrisome “to those of us that have different religious views.”

“I do worry that when you get these fundamentalist views that we’re a Christian state when we’re not a Christian state, the minority religions are going to be in trouble,” he said.

Cardin said “the trend of this court” is “you see four or five justices that have seemed to be pretty determined for an agenda to take us in a wrong direction.”

“When I’m in a meeting, a public meeting, I don’t particularly want to hear government officials supporting one religion over another. And I’m in a minority religion, being Jewish, so I want to make sure there’s not an expansion for that,” he said.

Cardin said he’s often invited to churches as a senator and doesn’t mind being in the midst of Christian worship, “but I don’t want our government doing that.”

Alito found himself embroiled in controversy once again this month after he was recorded telling a liberal activist at a Supreme Court gala that he agreed the country needs to return “to a place of godliness.” The activist was posing as a conservative, and Alito did not know he was being recorded.

The recording became public a few days after The New York Times reported an “Appeal to Heaven” flag, which has become a symbol of Christian nationalism, was displayed at his New Jersey beach house.

Alito explained in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) that his wife hoisted the flag at his property and insisted he “had no involvement in the decision to fly [it].”

He also said he “was not familiar with the ‘Appeal to Heaven’ flag when my wife flew it.”

But Democratic senators are skeptical of that claim in light of Alito’s expressed sympathy for returning the nation to a place of “godliness,” as well as his opinion in Dobbs and other high-profile cases centered on religious conflicts.

“I think there is a far-right group that is exploiting religion for a political agenda that is anti-woman, anti-choice, anti-science and wants to roll back our essential constitutional rights, and they’re exploiting every institution, whether the Supreme Court or Congress, to advance that agenda,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is Jewish, said when asked about the rise of Christian nationalism on the right and the display of the “Appeal to Heaven” flag at Alito’s property.

“I’m not a sure that a lot of the faith leaders in this country realize how potentially damaging to democracy it is,” he said.

Blumenthal said he’s worried Alito’s biggest decisions have blurred the line between church and state.

“It’s downright scary,” he said. “The founders of our Constitution came to this country or descended from people who made that journey here because they wanted to be free of the government telling them what their faith and religious belief should be.”

Blumenthal emphasized he’s “a person of faith, and I respect other people’s faiths,” but he said “to advance one faith over another or to discriminate against any faith is abhorrent and repugnant and should never be part of any law in this country.”

“My hope is that Alito and others who seem to share that view that they want to turn this nation into a country reflective of only one faith will be rejected by the vast majority of Americans,” he said.

Another Democrat senator, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), balked at Alito’s claim that Congress has no power to regulate the Supreme Court.

“He’s reading the Constitution selectively,” he said, arguing “we could in fact require some basic ethics disclosure like every other federal employee.

“These guys think they are nine lifetime unelected clerics that get to decide everything for the rest of us,” he said.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, a strictly nonpartisan group that represents 850 reform congregations across the country, said Alito’s statements and conduct have sparked alarm among Jews across the country.

“What I’m hearing from my congregants is real concern,” he said. “When the state gets involved in matters of religion, it mucks them up. They should stay out of the walls of our synagogues and our mosques.

“It’s, generally speaking, the kind of white Christian tradition that imposes itself on the public square, then all minorities suffer,” he said. “What I’m hearing from my congregants is a real concern with this rising trend of white Christian nationalism.”

A Pew Research Center poll of more than 7,166 voters published June 6 found 6 in 10 white evangelical Protestants who support former President Trump said government should support religious values and beliefs. And the survey found 69 percent of Trump supporters said the Bible should have some influence on U.S. laws, with 36 percent saying it should have a “great deal” of influence.

The reports about Alito’s desire for the nation to return to “godliness” and the “Appeal to Heaven” flag put new scrutiny on his Alito’s majority opinions in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the 2022 abortion rights case, and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, when the court in 2014 recognized the right of a corporation to deny employees health coverage of contraceptives.

Another decision coming under review is Alito’s 2019 opinion in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, in which seven justices ruled a 40-foot cross honoring fallen soldiers from World War I could remain on state land in Bladensburg, Md.

Alito argued for the court that while the cross is a symbol of Christianity, there “are many contexts in which the symbol has also taken on secular meaning” and “instances in which its message is now almost entirely secular,” citing its use as a registered trademark for Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Bayer group as examples.

Alito has spoken out on several occasions about what he sees as the threat posed to religious liberty by expanding government.

Speaking in Rome after he wrote the Dobbs decision, Alito warned, “Religious liberty is under attack in many places because it is dangerous to those who want to hold complete power.”

And he told graduates of Franciscan University in Ohio last month that their freedom of religion is “imperiled.”

“When you venture out into the world, you may well find yourself in a job or a community or a social setting when you will be pressured to endorse ideas you don’t believe, or to abandon core beliefs. It will be up to you to stand firm,” he said.

But critics of Alito’s rulings say they threaten the very religious liberty he purports to defend.

“Everyone in this country whether Christian, another religion or non-religious should be alarmed when one of the highest-ranking jurists in the land is rejecting church-state separation, which is a foundation of our democracy,” said Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“We are witnessing surging Christian nationalism,” she said, describing it as a reaction to “the first Black president, Black and female vice president, marriage equality, the Me Too movement, the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.