U.S. Supreme Court

Is Justice Breyer an atheist? Nonbelievers are buoyed by remark at oral arguments

A remark by Justice Stephen G. Breyer during oral arguments in a town prayer case last week has some atheists hoping he will “come out” as a nonbeliever.

The Huffington Post has a story on the reaction to a one-sentence comment by Breyer during arguments in the challenge to mostly Christian prayers delivered before town meetings in Greece, N.Y.

Breyer’s remark followed an exchange in which Justice Antonin Scalia, a devout Catholic, posed a question to a lawyer for the town. “What is the equivalent of prayer for somebody who is not religious?” Scalia asked.

The lawyer, Thomas Hungar of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, had trouble formulating an answer, according to the Huffington Post account. Breyer then appeared to suggest that Scalia’s question may have been directed at him. “Perhaps he’s asking me that question and I can answer it later,” Breyer said.

According to the story, “Nonbelievers have responded with excitement to the possibility that Breyer may not have a religious faith at all.” The justice grew up in a Jewish family and his daughter is an Episcopal priest.

Maggie Ardiente, spokesperson for the American Humanist Association, issued a statement addressing the issue. “It’s a great sign that Justice Breyer seems to be willing to talk to other members of the court to help explain objections nontheists may have to any potential decision,” she said.

“And, if Justice Breyer is nonreligious himself, it’s a great time to ‘come out.’ He’s in good company with nearly 20 percent of the population claiming no religious affiliation.”

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