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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2010

Bench and pew

When Associate Justice John Paul Stevens steps down from the U.S. Supreme Court soon, he will leave as a judicial giant vacating a large space, a renowned champion of liberal inclination who became learned and wise over 90 years of life. But he will also leave unfilled another remarkable niche that he now occupies solely.

Justice Stevens is a Protestant - the last on a court once dominated by Protestants. If Elena Kagan is confirmed, as expected, the court will gain its third Jewish member to go along with six Roman Catholics.

To observe that fact is to make not a criticism but an observation. What is remarkable is what this says about America and its changing attitudes. Although the U.S. Census does not track religious affiliation, other data suggest the various Protestant faiths still nominally count a majority of the American people as adherents. Yet the days when religion was often expressed in terms of an exclusionary sectarianism are gone.

In the living memory of many Americans, Catholics and Jews were routinely discriminated against in businesses and in areas such as membership in country clubs. Indeed, it was only half a century ago that John F. Kennedy overcame long-standing prejudice to become the first Catholic elected president.

Although no other Catholic has won election since, and no Jew has become president, the election of Barack Obama showed that if the tougher nut of race could be cracked, religious affiliation need not be a barrier today, as gender increasingly is not.

The makeup of the court is a dramatic example of how religion doesn't have the same power to divide that it once did. Largely unremarked, Catholics became a majority on the Supreme Court in 2006 when Associate Justice Samuel Alito was confirmed.

Last year, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the sixth Catholic to be seated. It is only now that Justice Stevens is leaving that the religious diversity of the court has come into focus.

It won't make much practical difference. Most Americans understand, as people once did not, that religious groups are not monoliths producing thinkers of identical mind. No one is about to confuse Associate Justice Antonin Scalia with Justice Sotomayor.

In a perfect world, the Supreme Court would reflect a better diversity of gender, race, religion, even geographical background. But the selection of nominees has become a more practical matter when it comes to religion - and that is a good development.

No longer is any Supreme Court seat assumed to be reserved for a token Catholic or Jew. In the seeming rejection of diversity in the matter of religion, a greater principle has held sway: At its highest level, the Supreme Court has become an equal opportunity employer.



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