A recent comment by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer led some atheist advocates to speculate he might be one of them. A new HuffPost/YouGov poll suggests that Americans would be split over whether that was a good thing.
According to the poll, 40 percent of Americans would approve of the president nominating an atheist to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, while almost as many -- 38 percent -- said they would disapprove.
The suggestion that Breyer might be a nonbeliever was sparked by a remark he made last week during oral arguments in a case involving government-instituted prayer at public meetings. After Justice Antonin Scalia asked a lawyer in the case what would be the equivalent of prayer for a nonreligious person, Breyer interjected, "Perhaps he’s asking me that question and I can answer it later."
The poll found that 45 percent of Americans think a potential justice's religious beliefs should not be relevant during the nominations process, while 36 percent said the president should take those beliefs into account.
Republicans were especially likely to disapprove of the idea of nominating an atheist justice (56 percent to 26 percent), while pluralities of Democrats (49 percent to 34 percent) and independents (42 percent to 34 percent) said they would approve.
Republicans were about equally divided on whether the president should take religious beliefs into account when choosing a nominee: 43 percent said he should, 41 percent said he should not. Democrats, by 47 percent to 36 percent, and independents, by 46 percent to 33 percent, said he should not.
Born-again Christians were also especially likely to think religious beliefs should be considered during the nominations process (53 percent) and to disapprove of the idea of an atheist Supreme Court nominee (65 percent).
Americans' views about an atheist justice parallel their feelings on nonbelievers holding other public offices. By 40 percent to 34 percent, Americans said they would vote for a well-qualified atheist nominated by their party for president. By 42 percent to 35 percent, they said they would vote for a well-qualified atheist for Congress.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Nov. 8-9 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.