October 2nd, 2010
11:15 PM ET
CNN Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears filed this report from Washington:
The beautifully ornate Catholic church in the nation's capital has seen its share of history and controversy.
In 1963, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle was the site of John F. Kennedy's funeral. After the service, on the steps outside, the slain president's young son famously saluted his father's memory.
But the church is also the site of an annual Mass that has drawn criticism for what some see as an unhealthy mix of politics, law and religion.
Washington's 57th annual "Red Mass," which celebrates the legal profession, will be held on Sunday - the day before the Supreme Court begins its new term.
Several justices traditionally attend, along with congressional leaders, diplomats, cabinet secretaries, and other dignitaries. Past presidents have also attended, though Barack Obama is not expected to appear this year.
It is a Catholic Mass, but power brokers of other faiths are asked to attend the invitation-only event. Justice Stephen Breyer, who is Jewish, is a regular.
The Mass "takes its name from the color of the vestments. ... (It) goes back centuries, to Rome, to France to England," Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl told CNN.
"There was the idea (to) bring all the people who are involved in the law... once a year so that together, they can simply pray for the wisdom of God."
The church, built starting in the 19th century, is considered one of Washington's hidden gems.
Tucked between modern office buildings a few blocks from the White House, it is a mix of architectural styles - a hint of ancient Rome, a splash from the Italian Renaissance and a definite Byzantine flavor.
St. Matthew, noted Monsignor Ronald Jameson, was the patron saint of civil servants - appropriate in a city where the federal government dominates the workforce.
A record six justices attended last year's Red Mass - including then-new member Sonia Sotomayor.
Critics of the service, however, find the attendance of leading decision-makers - including members of the highest court in the land - to be inappropriate.
"The truth is, this was set up as a way to basically lecture and give information to the justices," said Rev. Barry Lynn, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "There is no other institution that has this special way to talk to the justices on the Supreme Court."
The Red Mass was started in Washington in 1952 by the John Carroll Society, a lay Catholic group of prominent lawyers and professionals. Chief Justice John Roberts' wife Jane is currently an officer of the group.
Lynn, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, noted that the Mass was begun following several high court decisions disapproved of by the archdiocese.
"They figured if they got all the justices together and chatted them up in a worship service, they might be able to convince them to see the law their way," he said.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington strongly objects to that explanation of the Red Mass' beginnings.
Past homilies by Mass speakers have lamented the high court's ruling legalizing abortion and the constitutional separation of church and state.
Last year, U.S. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo made an unspecified reference to the rights of the unborn, saying those represented by lawyers are "more than clients... In some cases the clients are voiceless for they lack influence; in others they are literally voiceless, not yet with tongues and even without names, and require our most careful attention and radical support."
Other recent Red Mass events have been free of discussion on hot-button social and political issues, focusing on universal themes.
In 2008, Cardinal John Patrick Foley noted that many parts of the Bible "sound very much like American ideals" and urged members of the high court to build a society "of justice, of peace and of love."
One member of the court who no longer attends is Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, like Breyer, is Jewish. Ginsburg said she grew tired of being lectured to by Catholic officials.
"I went one year, and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion," Ginsburg said in the book Stars of David: Prominent Jews talk About Being Jewish, by Abigail Pogrebin.
"Even the Scalias - although they're much of that persuasion - were embarrassed for me."
Six Catholics now sit on the high court: Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor.
Newest Justice Elena Kagan, like Breyer and Ginsburg, is Jewish. She is not expected to attend the Red Mass.
Church officials insist that they do not attempt to persuade anyone who attends the service. Wuerl says the event provides a place to put aside the partisanship and troubles in the world to seek comfort in a shared community and a sacred place.
Americans have "been very careful about ... not allowing any one tradition or church to become the state church," he said. "But from the very beginning, we've always said we need to hear the voice of faith in all the discussion that is a part of determining what we want to do."
Lynn takes a different tack. "I don't think there is any doubt that people in that congregation - including the Supreme Court justices - are going to listen to what is said," he said.
"They might hear something phrased in a way you might never hear it in the court, but it might become a lingering factor in their decisions," Lynn said. "People who are concerned about the Red Mass worry about this kind of undue influence."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.