Thursday, January 26, 2006

Justice Breyer Discusses Establishment Clause

Yesterday's Washington Jewish Week carries an interesting report on a dialogue with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer held last Sunday at Kesher Israel Congregation, a synagogue in the District of Columbia. Breyer said the Establishment Clause was designed not as an "absolute separation" of church and state, but as a way to "minimize social conflict based on religion." He traced the language of the Establishment Clause to "the wars of religion" between Catholics and Protestants in 17th-century Europe. He pointed out that the clause's interpretation has evolved in the 20th century, as the country has changed and immigrants introduced dozens of new religions. "The Founders did engage in a lot of activities that would be forbidden today under ... current interpretations of the Establishment Clause", he said, because they lived in a generally homogeneouss nation. While the court's view of the Establishment Clause has changed, Breyer believes it has still stayed true to the original values that the Founders intended.

When confronted with a question about Jewish law, Breyer said that he didn't know that much about it, quipping that he was "bar mitzvahed in a Reform congregation." He added, however, that he believes the profession of law is squarely in the Jewish tradition of social justice.