Bench Memos

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Roberts and Religion


Roberts’s White House documents show his fidelity to the American tradition of the government’s proper role in affirming, acknowledging, and promoting respect for religion generally while avoiding sectarian endorsement of particular religions.

In 1984 Roberts described the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence as “misguided and confused”. Encountering the phrase “the prohibition against government support of religion,” Roberts pointed out that “[t]here is no such prohibition” and objected to “incorrectly paraphrasing the Establishment Clause in that fashion.” Noting that a draft Thanksgiving proclamation was “imbued with religious overtones,” he found it sufficiently pluralistic “to blunt the protests of all but the most fanatic civil libertines.”

At the same time, Roberts did not hesitate to object to sectarian phrasings. A draft speech that referred to “the Church” and “churches” should be changed, he wrote, because “many of our citizens do not worship in churches, but in temples or mosques.” If a proposed award ceremony for Pope John Paul II was to be a “sectarian endeavor,” he advised, “the President should not become involved.” Asked to advise on a request from an official of the Russian Orthodox Church to commend his church to the Israeli ambassador, Roberts stated: “The White House clearly should not get into the business of giving a seal of approval to particular religious groups or religious leaders.”


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