Since I’ve been on the road talking about Justice Scalia, I’ve consistently been asked about the fact that six of the nine justices are Roman Catholic and about how that affects the Court’s opinions, particularly those of Scalia. I devoted a chapter to Scalia and religion — Passions of His Mind — and, despite how touchy the intersection of personal belief and judicial views can be, I am ready to field these questions.

Recently, however, I’ve felt a shift in the line of questioning, as happened this week at Yale, and it comes down to a query fraught with more hazards: Would it be politically difficult for the president to choose a Catholic for any new vacancy? And would it be almost as difficult to pick someone who is Jewish? Right now, serving with the six Catholics (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor), are two Jewish justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer) and one Protestant. That one Protestant, Justice John Paul Stevens, will turn 90 in April and is likely to be the next to retire. I’ve heard a few professors say if Stevens steps down, it would be nearly impossible for Obama to chose a Catholic, or maybe even someone who is Jewish, because of the current court makeup.

I do not know how religion would affect the choice, but here’s some context from where I sit, along with the thoughts of two of my subjects:

The Supreme Court had long been dominated by Protestants, of course, like the White House and Congress. When Catholics became a five-member majority after the 2005 and 2006 appointments of Roberts and Alito, it barely made the news, however, because of faded anti-Catholic sentiment and evolving religious pluralism in America. After recent abortion-rights disputes, the religious backgrounds of the justices became a topic for discussion, but still with unease. As I’ve written, lawyers often express thoughts about how Catholicism influences legal opinions only privately, reflecting their discomfort with the suggestion that either Scalia is being disingenuous about how his beliefs influence him (he says they do not) or that serious Catholics cannot think nonreligiously about legal matters.

For his part, Justice Scalia has said he was “very pleased and sort of proud that Americans didn’t pay any attention” when the bench suddenly had a Catholic majority.

My earlier biographical subject, Sandra Day O’Connor, an Episcopalian, comes at it differently. And when I was asked about the justices and religion in New Haven this week, I found myself recalling something she said last fall. During a panel discussion, O’Connor emphasized the value of diversity on the bench — in sex, professional experience, geography and religion. “I don’t think we should have nine clones up there,” O’Connor said, primarily complaining at that point that all current justices had been elevated from lower U.S. appeals courts. When asked about geographical representation, O’Connor took the initiative to go beyond the question and declared, “I don’t think they should all be of one faith and I don’t think they should all be from one state.”

People Are Asking:

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From Miami to Milwaukee, one of the most frequently asked questions I’ve fielded in recent weeks relates to how Scalia’s Catholicism influences his rulings. This is a touchy area but clearly one that fascinates people. The question is increasingly asked, too, because there are now six Catholic justices on the Supreme Court. Along with Scalia, they are Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor.

Yet more than any of them, Scalia, who was raised in a strict Catholic home, then attended a Jesuit high school and the Jesuit Georgetown University, is identified as a Catholic justice. He has spoken publicly about the importance of fidelity to the Church’s traditional values, such as saying the Rosary and observance of all holy days. How his religion affects his judicial views emerges mostly in the debate over abortion rights, a topic about which he is passionate as he is about religion. Scalia fiercely rejects the notion that the Constitution contains a right to abortion. Yet when asked about the connection between his religion and his rulings, he says there is none. He says he is only reading “texts,” not making value judgments. In the book, I let him have his say, but I also include skepticism from critics who contend his passion for his religion cannot help but affect his rulings.

It is true that irrespective of Scalia’s Catholicism, his conservative approach to the Constitution would likely dictate his opposition to abortion rights. Yet it is also true, as Scalia has told me, that one of the lasting lessons he has carried from his years of Catholic education is, “Do not … separate your religious life from your intellectual life. They’re not separate.”

Why are they friends? Another question I have heard a lot lately, including when I appeared at Washington’s independent bookstore Politics and Prose centers on the friendship between Justices Scalia and Ginsburg, the court’s prominent feminist. Much goes back to their roots as New Yorkers and in academia. She grew up in Brooklyn, he in Queens. They both spent years teaching in law schools and, as justices, now take an intellectual approach to the law. When they served together on the Washington, D.C., federal appeals court, before their respective appointments to the high Court, they used to run drafts of opinions by each other to test everything from the legal reasoning to points of grammar. Justice Ginsburg says of Scalia: “I love him. But sometimes I’d like to strangle him.”

Finally, Bush v. Gore:  As I discovered in Philadelphia, where I spoke at the National Constitution Center and also fielded questions for WHYY’s “Radio Times” show, many people still care passionately about the justices’ 5-4 decision in 2000 helping George W. Bush win the White House over then Vice President Al Gore. Scalia, of course, continues to say “Get over it,” but —  plainly — people are not. It does not surprise me that the controversy lingers. Scalia was the only justice who wrote a statement explaining why the majority felt justified in shutting down the Florida recounts at a crucial moment. On lingering controversies, however, I have to admit that I was thrown when someone at a Milwaukee speech asked me whether Scalia believed Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas in 1991. I thought that one was history.