Overview:

The Supreme Court nominee implied that God played a vital role in her nomination, but that sends the wrong message.

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On Friday, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was formally nominated to the Supreme Court. With her stellar qualifications, experience on the federal bench, and inspirational personal history, it’s a fantastic selection for President Joe Biden. While her judgments so far have not involved any serious church/state separation cases, her background as a public defender and her presumably liberal ideology suggests she would support that wall of separation.

And yet, when she accepted the nomination yesterday, one part of her otherwise fantastic speech stood out because of how she talked about God.

I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey.  My life has been blessed beyond measure, and I do know that one can only come this far by faith.

There’s nothing wrong with people in Jackson’s position thanking God for their success if that’s what they believe. There’s certainly nothing illegal about it. But it’s still bizarre for someone with Jackson’s incredible résumé to suggest she could have only gotten to this point with God’s help.

This is a woman who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University. She graduated from Harvard’s law school. She clerked for a district judge, appellate judge, and Justice Stephen Breyer (whom she would be replacing). She worked at a high-paying corporate law firm but also served as a low-paid public defender.

It takes an extraordinary amount of hard work and tenacity to achieve any one of those goals, much less all of them. That’s all her, not God. While there’s no doubt some luck involved in getting nominated to the Supreme Court (like having a Democratic president with a Democratic Senate, in this case), Jackson’s success is the result of a lifetime of sacrifice.

That’s not to say I begrudge her mention of God, but that she’s wrong to say “one can only come this far by faith.” While she surely didn’t mean it this way, that sort of statement would imply atheists have no place on the bench.

In fact, that’s the one way her nomination is not historic. While there’s been plenty of talk about how Jackson would bring some sorely needed diversity to the Supreme Court—as the first Black female justice and only the third Black justice ever—she will not be adding any religious diversity to the bench.

Media outlets haven’t been able to pin a specific faith label on Jackson, but she once served on the board of a private Christian school. She was asked about the school’s anti-abortion statement of faith during her earlier confirmation hearing and said she didn’t “necessarily agree with all of the statements” and wasn’t aware of that particular part of it. But it stands to reason she had no problem with the school’s Christian affiliation because she shares that faith.

What “type” of Christian is she? We don’t know. But if she’s confirmed, there would be six or seven Catholics on the bench (Neil Gorsuch was confirmed as a Catholic but attends an Episcopal church), one Jewish justice (Elena Kagan), and, with Jackson, one Protestant. It’s a Supreme Court full of God-believers.

That’s not necessarily a problem if those justices support religious liberty (and not just the Christian nationalism kind) along with church/state separation. This Court’s majority, however, does not.

If confirmed, Jackson wouldn’t change the ideological makeup of the bench, and she wouldn’t really change the religious makeup either. But she could set herself apart from most of her colleagues by becoming a champion for the separation of church and state, even if that happens in a slew of dissents. She can make sure religious and non-religious minorities aren’t punished by politicians who mistake the Bible for the Constitution.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.