WASHINGTON – More than two centuries of Protestant domination on the Supreme Court (search) will end if Samuel Alito (search) is confirmed as its next justice. For the first time in the nation's history, five Roman Catholics -- a majority -- would be on the high court.
Yet news that the son of an Italian immigrant father, someone who grew up in a suburban New Jersey parish where he served as a lector and later married, doesn't carry quite the power it might have in the days when Kennedys ran for the White House.
Catholics have become part of the nation's political mainstream -- far removed from the blatant anti-Cathbortion and other social issues that will be a focus of Alito's confirmation hearings -- making an outpouring of religious pride for the conservative jurist less likely.
"The Catholic community is not going out dancing in the streets of Boston tonight because of this nomination," said James Davidson, a Purdue University (search) sociologist who researches religion and Supreme Court justices. "But it still represents a significant development in American religious history."
Protestants have been so dominant on the court that half of the justices have come from just three denominations: the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational churches, he said.
Only two Protestants would remain on the Supreme Court -- David Souter and John Paul Stevens. The two other justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer -- are Jewish.
Analysts said Alito, as the fifth Catholic, was a less controversial religious choice than Harriet Miers, whose adult acceptance of born-again Christianity was dissected for clues about how she would vote on abortion. President Bush helped make religion a central issue in her failed nomination, saying it was a factor in selecting her for the high court.
David Leege, a professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame (search) and an expert on Catholics and politics, said the only activists likely to seize on Alito's religion are abortion rights groups, who will try to link the judge's position on abortion to Catholic teaching.
Most others will focus on his ideology, Leege said. Senators are "less concerned whether the person is Catholic or Protestant than whether the person is conservative or liberal," he said.
Alito, an appeals court judge, and his wife are members of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish (search) in Roseland, N.J., a suburban parish which referred inquiries about the judge to the Archdiocese of Newark. Archdiocesan spokesman Jim Goodness said Alito attends Mass weekly and his wife teaches religious education classes at Blessed Sacrament, where his children were confirmed. But Goodness would not comment on whether Alito volunteers for any church work.
Monsignor Thomas Gervasio, the new pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows/Saint Anthony's Parish in Hamilton, N.J., where Alito's mother Rose is a member, said she told him the judge was confirmed, served as a lector and was married in Our Lady of Sorrows. The judge attended public school and enrolled in church religious classes as a boy, Rose Alito told Gervasio.
Taking calls at her Hamilton home, where a small Virgin Mary statue sat on the mantle, the judge's 90-year-old mother asked Gervasio to "say some prayers for Sam" and declared of her son: "Of course, he's against abortion."
Two of the Catholics on the current court -- Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- are abortion foes. Scalia, whose son Paul is a priest, and Thomas are sometimes seen walking together to the court after attending Mass on holy days of obligation.
The third Catholic -- Anthony Kennedy -- voted with the majority in a 5-4 ruling in 1992 reaffirming the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, despite some apparent inner turmoil.
Newly installed Chief Justice John Roberts (search), the fourth Catholic, is solidly conservative and his wife, Jane, volunteers for Feminists for Life, but it is unclear how he will vote on abortion cases.
Over and over during his confirmation hearings, Roberts assured lawmakers his rulings would be guided by his understanding of the facts of cases, the law and the Constitution, not by his personal views. "My faith and my religious beliefs do not play a role," Roberts said.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and expert on the Catholic church, said he hoped Alito will not be forced to provide similar public disclaimers about his Catholicism.
"People have to look at the concrete positions that a man or woman holds, not the religious views that might have impelled them to take that position," Reese said.