Law | Opinion

Steven Newcomb: Supreme Court decision influenced by religion

Earl Warren, former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo from Skepticism

Steven Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute discusses how religion influenced the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tee-Hit-Ton-Indians v. US:
In this column I want to address the fact that 2015 marks the 60th year since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren. The Supreme Court handed down its majority decision in that case, in support of the U.S. government’s main argument that the Tee-Hit-Ton Band of Tlingit Indians did not deserve monetary compensation for timber taken from lands in their traditional territory (part of which Congress had declared to be the Tongass National Forest). The reason? According to the U.S. government’s argument, it was because “the Christian nations of Europe” had “discovered” and thereby supposedly become “the sovereign” over “the lands of heathens and infidels.” To set the context, let’s look at some historical background.

On January 21, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Simon Sobeloff to be Solicitor General of the United States. The Tee-Hit-Ton Indians’ case was already, or would soon be, on the new Solicitor General’s desk. On February 4, 1954, two weeks after Sobeloff’s appointment, interim U.S. Supreme Court Justice Chief Justice Earl Warren (he had not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate) delivered an address at “the Annual Christian Action Conference, sponsored by International Council for Christian Leadership.” The event took place at the Mayflower Hotel, in Washington, D.C., and President Dwight Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, and various members of the U.S. Congress were seated in the audience. It had been only nine years since the end of World War II, and it was the era of the anti-communist “Red Scare” and resulting Christian fervor.

In his speech at the Mayflower Hotel, Chief Justice Warren said of the United States: “our governmental affairs have been guided by men and women of religious faith. I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the Spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses.” He gave as examples the “Commission from Ferdinand and Isabella” to Columbus, the Charter of Virginia, and other such colonial documents. In all those documents, he said, “the same objective is present: A Christian land governed by Christian principles.”

Get the Story:
Steven Newcomb: Chief Justice Earl Warren: A Christian Land, Governed by Christian Principles (Indian Country Today 1/24)

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