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Ketanji Brown Jackson’s faith to share spotlight at confirmation hearings

(WASHINGTON) — On her 18th birthday, just days into her freshman year at Harvard in 1988, Ketanji Brown Jackson says she broke down in tears on the university library steps, overcome by homesickness and seeking solace in faith.

“Even in my loneliness, I thanked God for the opportunity he’d given me, for the firm foundation he had provided, and also for how far I had come,” Jackson recounted years later in an address to graduates of Montrose Christian School, a private Baptist-affiliated high school in Rockville, Maryland, where she served on the advisory board.

“The Bible is filled with people who, through faith, were able to see beyond the present, to a world of hope and glory,” she said, according to a copy of the 2011 speech reviewed by ABC News. “God knows what lies ahead of each of us. The best that you can do, as you look forward, is to take the long view.”

Just over a decade later, Jackson addressed the nation from the White House as the first Black woman ever nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Putting her faith into public view, she opened her remarks by “thanking God for delivering me to this point.”

“I do know that one can only come this far by faith,” Jackson said during the nationally televised nomination ceremony last month.

Jackson’s faith will share the spotlight with her judicial philosophy, legal training and career experience next week as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee examine her record for key sources of influence ahead of voting whether to recommend her confirmation to the high court.

“A judge’s life experience — whether its religion or jobs or what part of the country they grew up in — affects how they view the law,” said ABC News legal analyst Sarah Isgur.

Friends and former colleagues close to Jackson have described her religious practice as private and deeply personal, neither a frequent topic of conversation nor an overly outward display. She identifies as a Protestant Christian, one Jackson associate, who asked to speak anonymously due to sensitivity of the matter, told ABC News.

The Montrose Christian School commencement address is one of just two public speeches — among more than 2,000 pages of Jackson’s personal records supplied to the Senate — that include references to God and the Bible.

In 2017, Jackson spoke at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, for an adult education program entitled “The Concept of Justice.” “The Bible is also filled with stories that have as their subtext the fact men must face consequence in the wake of their moral failings,” she said, according to a copy of remarks provided to the Senate.

The most prominent religious affiliation on Jackson’s public resume is her advisory board role at Montrose Christian School between 2010 and 2011, where she focused primarily on fundraising, she testified last year. The private K-12 institution closed permanently in 2013, two years after she left the position.

The school’s website directs visitors to a statement of beliefs from the Montrose Baptist Church which says, in part, that Christians are obligated to oppose homosexuality, abortion and same-sex marriage, and advocates a wife’s subservience to her husband — all positions in contrast with key planks of the Democratic platform.

Jackson said last year that she was not familiar with the website at the time of her service.

During Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation process in 2020, several Democrats suggested that her position on the board of a group of private Christian schools affiliated with the conservative Catholic community People of Praise meant she could not be impartial on hot-button issues.

Trinity Schools Inc., where Barrett served on the board for three years and also sent at least three of her children, also opposes homosexuality, same-sex marriage and bars LGBTQ teachers from the classroom.

Republicans now want to question Jackson about whether her role at Montrose Christian School should be interpreted as an endorsement of its beliefs in the same way Democrats did to Barrett.

“I’ve served on so many boards, and I don’t necessarily agree with all of the statements, of all of the things that those boards might have in their materials,” Jackson told Republican Sen. Josh Hawley during her confirmation hearing to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She later clarified that she was not espousing any position, for or against, on the school’s beliefs.

“Any personal views about religion would never come into my service as a judge,” Jackson said.

How Jackson came to be associated with Montrose Christian School and why she apparently ended her affiliation after one year is not clear. The White House declined to comment. Former school head, Dr. Ken Fentress, did not respond to messages left by ABC seeking comment.

Matters of faith and religion have been raised during every modern Supreme Court confirmation process.

Sometimes the questioning has veered toward religious bigotry. In 1836, Roger B. Taney, the first Catholic elevated to the bench, faced intense scrutiny over alleged allegiance to the pope. Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish American justice, was hit with anti-Semitic attacks during his confirmation in 1916.

More recently, Christian conservatives voiced outrage in 2017 after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., probed then-Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholic beliefs, saying “the dogma lives loudly within you.” Some viewed the comment as anti-religious and derogatory.

“Overnight, Barrett became a legal celebrity, law students were wearing T-shirts sporting her face, and she moved to the top of the conservative SCOTUS wish list,” said Isgur. “It was a huge misstep by the Democrats in that sense and one I’d imagine Republicans learned from.”

Many recent Supreme Court nominees have openly talked about the influence of religion on their lives and outlook.

“I am religious, and I am a Catholic,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh told Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, during his 2018 confirmation hearing. “And I grew up attending Catholic schools. And the Constitution of the United States foresaw that religious people or people who are not religious are all equally American.”

Justice Samuel Alito testified as a nominee in 2006 that the legacy of strong anti-Catholic sentiment in mid-nineteenth century America and its impact on his own family colors his view of discrimination cases. “I do take that into account,” he said.

“As you know — I don’t think it’s a secret — I am Jewish,” Justice Elena Kagan declared during her Senate confirmation hearing in 2010. “The state of Israel has meant a lot to me and my family.”

Senators from both sides of the aisle — and the nominees themselves — have all tended to directly disavow any relevance of individual faith to qualification to be a justice.

Justice Clarence Thomas, questioned in 1991 about a past statement suggesting religious values should be taught in public schools, insisted a “wall of separation” between church and state is “an important metaphor.”

Chief Justice John Roberts downplayed any judicial influence by his devout Catholic faith, flatly telling the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005: “My faith and my religious beliefs do not play a role in judging.”

During the 2017 confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, then-Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., delicately broached the topic of religious bias with the nominee: “I would not ask you your religion or how you practice your faith,” Flake said. “If you can, just talk, in general, about what the role of faith is… on the courts, what role should it play?”

Gorsuch replied, “How far does my religious faith, your religious faith permit us to engage in things that our religion teaches are wrong, sinful? That is a matter of religious faith.”

In 2020, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., highlighted then-nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s conservative Catholic “tenets of faith” and asked for a public declaration: “Can you set aside whatever catholic beliefs you have regarding any issue before you?” he asked. “I can,” Barrett replied.

If confirmed, Jackson would become only the second Protestant justice on the current court, alongside Justice Gorsuch, who was raised Catholic but said during his 2017 confirmation hearing that his family attends an Episcopal church.

Six of the justices are Catholic; Justice Kagan is the only Jew.

“I’m certain her faith will come up in terms of how it has informed her views of the world and the law,” Isgur said, “but I doubt it will be a point of contention so much as a point of pride.”

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