The Red Mass

Today is the annual Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., an annual mass for those in the legal profession.  Several Supreme Court justices attend, which is causing some folks some consternation.  CNN reports on the “controversy” over the mass.

“The truth is, this was set up as a way to basically lecture and give information to the justices,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “There is no other institution that has this special way to talk to the justices on the Supreme Court.” . . .

The Red Mass was started in Washington in 1952 by the John Carroll Society, a lay Catholic group of prominent lawyers and professionals. . . .

Lynn, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, noted the Mass was begun after several high court decisions that were disapproved of by the archdiocese.

“They figured if they got all the justices together and chatted them up in a worship service, they might be able to convince them to see the law their way,” he said.

In 1989, a top church official used the occasion of the Mass to call for a return to “religiously based moral values” and lament the “inviolable, impenetrable and towering wall” between church and state.

In 1986, Washington Cardinal James Hickey attacked the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. . . .

Church officials, however, said they do not attempt to lobby or seek to persuade anyone who attends the service. [Washington Archbishop Donald] Wuerl likens the experience to putting aside the partisanship and troubles in the world and seeking comfort in a shared community and a sacred place.

Americans have “been very careful about … not allowing any one tradition or church to become the state church,” he said. “But from the very beginning, we’ve always said we need to hear the voice of faith in all the discussion that is a part of determining what we want to do.”

Lynn takes a different tack.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that people in that congregation, including the Supreme Court justices, are going to listen to what is said. They might hear something phrased in a way you might never hear it in the court, but it might become a lingering factor in their decisions. … People who are concerned about the Red Mass worry about this kind of undue influence, an influence that no other group, religious or otherwise, has on those nine men and women.”

The story also notes that six of the nine sitting justices are Catholic, but not only Catholic justices attend.  Justice Stephen Breyer, for instance, has been a regular attendee.

It seems to me that Lynn’s concerns are misplaced.  If Supreme Court justices cannot attend an annual mass, or any other event at which powerful worldviews are advanced, without compromising the integrity or independence  of our judicial system, we have much bigger problems than this one service.  We expect justices to be able to make legal decisions based on the law in front of them, setting aside their personal moral views and any desire they may have for approval by outside groups.  And even if the occasional Red Mass sermon prosletyzes on a current controversy, I think the justices can handle it.  No matter what is said about abortion, school prayer, or any other issue on which the church has a strong position, I doubt it will have much influence on the decisions of Justice Breyer or any the other justices who attend.

UPDATE: The AP reports that six justices — Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, and Sotomayor — attended the Red Mass today, as did Vice President Biden.