Almost from the moment President George W. Bush nominated federal Appeals Court judge Samuel Alito, Jr., to the United States Supreme Court last October, questions have swirled concerning how his strong personal religious beliefs might impact his decisions on the high court.

Clearly, many conservative Christians believe that Justice Alito would be a reliable ally to their social and political causes. The Rev. Jerry Falwell went so far as to say Alito's confirmation would be the biggest victory for conservative Christians in three decades. Others within the religious community, such as the Reverend Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have expressed alarm that Alito will be inclined to "kowtow" to the desires of religious conservatives.

Is either perception justified? Clearly, as a government attorney in the 1980s, Alito was willing to work to overturn. Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that protected abortion rights under the constitution. As a federal judge, Alito has consistently voted to give states leeway to place restrictions on abortion rights, and nothing in his record suggests he would change course on the Supreme Court. Of course, all that doesn't necessarily add up to a vote to overturn Roe. Alito has expressed support for upholding past Supreme Court precedents, and seems to accept the existence of some kind of constitutional right to privacy, the bedrock principle upon which Roe is based. In short, there is conflicting evidence on how Alito would rule, and don't look for that to be cleared up in his confirmation hearings this week.

In fact, at the hearings you can expect Alito to side-step all substantive issues regarding religion, other than giving a pro-forma endorsement of the separation of church and state. Beyond that, he'll decline to discuss specific issues or controversies touching on religion, saying they might come before him as a justice.

Fair enough. But unlike some past nominees to the high court, Alito has a fairly large body of judicial writing on the subject. During his 15 years as a federal appeals court judge, Alito personally wrote lead opinions in at least nine cases that focused on religious issues, and dissented or wrote separate opinions on several more. Reviewing those writings, it's possible to get a reasonable fix on how Alito might rule on many religious issues that present themselves to the Supreme Court.

First, in case it's been a while since your last civics class, it's worth briefly looking at how constitutional issues about religion are judged in America. The First Amendment of the Constitution is the legal foundation for freedom of religion. It provides, in relevant part, that Congress "shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion; or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Broadly speaking, most cases that come before the court on religion today can be classified as either "establishment" cases, ones involving questions about whether the government is using its power to promote or establish a religious belief, or "free-exercise" cases, ones concerning whether the government is using its power to prevent a person or group from practicing religious beliefs.

Alito's for religious expression, with limits
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