Anthony Kennedy’s retirement: “A historic opportunity to reshape the court”

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Anthony M. Kennedy announced yesterday that he is retiring from the United States Supreme Court, effective July 31. The Wall Street Journal called him “one of the Supreme Court’s most consequential modern-day justices and author of landmark rulings on gay rights, the death penalty and campaign finance.”

The Journal also noted the significance of Kennedy’s announcement: his decision “hand[ed] President Donald Trump a historic opportunity to reshape the court.”

A remarkable tenure

Anthony Kennedy was born and raised in Sacramento, California. He graduated from Stanford University in 1958 with a BA in political science after spending his senior year at the London School of Economics. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1961, then served a year in the California Army National Guard.

He and his wife, Mary, were married in 1963 and are the parents of two sons and a daughter.

President Reagan nominated him for the Supreme Court in 1987; he was confirmed by the US Senate on a 97-0 vote. He is one of five Catholic justices on the Supreme Court (there have been only thirteen such justices out of 113 in the Court’s history).

Justice Kennedy turns eighty-two on July 23. He is the fourteenth longest-serving justice in the Court’s history.

A divisive ruling

Anthony Kennedy is best known as the “swing vote” on many rulings across his tenure. One biography describes him as “a surprising and unpredictable justice on the Supreme Court, displaying thoughtful independence that at times, fails to reflect any particular ideology.”

Most significantly, he wrote the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 five-to-four ruling guaranteeing the right to same-sex marriage. His vote not only legalized gay marriage in this country–it also opened the way to the escalating conflict between religious freedom and sexual freedom we are witnessing today.

In his opinion, Justice Kennedy stated: “It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”

He added: “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.”

However, the right to “advocate” for biblical marriage is more opposed today than ever before in American history.

Many Americans consider same-sex marriage to be a civil right akin to interracial marriage. Others (myself included) fully support the latter but oppose the former on biblical grounds. Since so many in our culture are biblically illiterate, they seem not to understand that our defense of biblical marriage is motivated by Scripture and religious freedom, not prejudice.

As a result, we are considered just as bigoted as if we opposed interracial marriage or other civil rights.

This conflict has enormous ramifications for churches, religious schools, ministries, and individual Christians. It could threaten nonprofit status, inclusion in the NCAA and similar organizations, and our individual rights to express our religious beliefs publicly.

I consider this issue to be the most significant and ominous cultural conflict of our time.

Dire warnings

Assuming President Trump nominates and the Senate confirms a conservative to replace Justice Kennedy, yesterday’s announcement could prove monumental to our nation’s future. At a campaign rally last night, the president said, “We have to pick [a nominee] that’s going to be there for 40 years, 45 years.”

CNN reports this morning that the president is “poised to change the court in a way that few of his conventional GOP predecessors ever did.” Most significantly, his next nominee could make possible a reversal of Roe v. Wade.

One columnist calls Kennedy’s retirement “devastating for LGBTQ rights.” Another predicted that “the Supreme Court will now fall to chaos.”

Yet another warns that Kennedy’s replacement “will have an opportunity to overrule myriad liberal precedents and reshape constitutional law for decades.” Democratic Party leaders are calling for the Senate to delay confirmation hearings until after the midterm elections.

These reactions show that the confirmation battle over the president’s eventual nominee will be vociferous.

A biblical response

God’s word upholds the sanctity of human life from conception (Psalm 139:13-16) to natural death (Exodus 20:13; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Jesus defined marriage as a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:3-9). And our First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion and of speech.

I am praying that Justice Kennedy’s successor will help the Supreme Court defend life and marriage. I am praying that he or she will support our First Amendment freedoms as well.

I am also praying for the well-being of our nation during these divisive days. I am praying for the president to lead with wisdom and grace and for those who participate in the confirmation process to put the American people ahead of personal political agendas.

And I am praying for America’s Christians to set “an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

America is a nation, and all nations are “but men” (Psalm 9:20). What matters most is not what happens on the Supreme Court of the United States but what happens when we stand before the Ultimate Court of the universe (2 Corinthians 5:10). Let’s respond to the political animosity of these days in a way that honors Jesus and draws people to him.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

NOTE: Questions about our faith are common–to skeptics but to Christians as well. We all need clear, biblical responses motivated by grace.

That’s why I wrote my new booklet, Biblical Insight to Tough Questions. I’d like to send it to you to thank you for your gift to help others discern today’s news from a biblical perspective.

I hope the booklet helps you grow in your faith and engage our culture with truth you can trust. To receive your copy, click here.