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O'Connor Embarrassed by Letter on U.S. as 'Christian Nation'

March 16, 1989|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, trying to distance herself from an embarrassing political episode in Arizona, said Wednesday that she regretted having sent a letter to a Republican activist suggesting the high court had endorsed the notion that "this is a Christian nation."

Supporters of impeached former Gov. Evan Mecham cited O'Connor's letter in obtaining the Arizona Republican Party's adoption of a resolution proclaiming America as a "Christian nation."

Party leaders, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Sen. Barry Goldwater, quickly denounced the resolution, which was adopted in the waning moments of a convention on Jan. 28. Goldwater blamed the resolution on "a bunch of kooks."

O'Connor's role in the episode, although apparently inadvertent, came to light only later.

Letter Sent to Activists

In a letter to Republican activist Annette Conant dated last May 19, O'Connor said she was responding to her inquiry "about any holdings of this court to the effect that this is a Christian nation. There are statements to such effect in the following opinions." The letter cited cases from 1892, 1952 and 1961.

The letter began, "Dear Neta," and was signed, "With best regards, Sandra."

Conant, of Apache Junction, Ariz., distributed the letter to party activists and sponsored the resolution at the January convention.

Legal experts said Wednesday that they find the brief letter surprising, puzzling and wrong.

The Supreme Court has never ruled or made a "holding" that the United States is a Christian nation. The two 20th-Century cases that O'Connor cited do not even mention Christianity.

In the key passage of a 1952 case cited by O'Connor, Justice William O. Douglas wrote: "We are religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."

Frankfurter Ruling

In the 1961 case, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote: "Religious beliefs pervade, and religious institutions have traditionally regulated, virtually all human life." However, it is "indisputably fundamental to our American culture . . . that the enforcement of religious belief as such is no legitimate concern of the civil government."

Only in 1892 does the phrase "Christian nation" appear. The court overturned a misdemeanor conviction against a New York church that had illegally hired an alien: specifically, an English minister to serve as its pastor. In a discussion of its ruling in favor of the church, the court opinion noted that "this is a Christian nation."

On Wednesday, O'Connor released a brief statement: "I regret a letter that I sent to an acquaintance in response to her request for information was used in a political debate. It was not my intention to express a personal view about the subject of the inquiry, but merely to attempt to respond appropriately to one of the many requests for information which come across my desk."

Several law professors pointed out that O'Connor did not retract the letter itself.

"It is a startling letter. You would think no careful lawyer, let alone a Supreme Court justice, would sign her name to . . . that," said American University law professor Herman Schwartz. "There is a big difference between saying we are a religious people and we are a Christian nation."

Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger said he found O'Connor's letter "absolutely shocking," especially considering that O'Connor in her court opinions has been "very sensitive to religious diversity."

"I find it hard to believe she actually wrote that. She may be graciously covering up for someone else in her office," Dellinger said.

Court aides noted that in 1975 the Supreme Court librarian had drafted a nearly identical response to a similar inquiry. They suggested that O'Connor's office may have relied on that 1975 letter in drafting a reply to Conant. But O'Connor refused to clarify the matter.

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