New acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said in 2014 that judges without a New Testament "biblical view of justice," should not serve on the federal bench and suggested that he would block the appointment of non-Christian judges if given the chance.
While Whitaker singled out atheists in particular as being unfit to serve, his comments also extended to Jewish and Muslim Americans.
In 2014, Whitaker was running for the Republican Senate nomination in Iowa and participated in a forum hosted by the religious-right group The Family Leader. The forum's leader, Bob Vander Plaats, outlined the themes of the event in his opening remarks. "We believe God has three institutions: It would be the church, the family, and government," he said. The Republican nominees were then asked a series of questions about their religious values, including their views on federal judgeships.
"If you get to the United States Senate and you have the majority, you can block President Obama's judges," said moderator Erick Erickson, a conservative blogger. "But most Americans would say you need to have a real reason to block those judges other than just they're liberal. How do you set the criteria that you will use to block those judges?"
Whittaker's two competitors, Sam Clovis and Joni Ernst, said that they would use faith-based criteria and make sure they acknowledged "natural law."
Natural law is the belief that legal rights and systems of morals were given to humans by God and were not derived from the rules of society. The concept is often used in religious communities to deem certain acts immoral and "unnatural" like the use of contraception or same-sex relationships.
But Whitaker said that using belief in natural law as a criterion for appointing U.S. federal judgeships did not go far enough.
"As someone that's interacted with the federal judiciary a time or two, I will tell you that I have a unique perspective on federal judges," he said.
"And while I agree that I want to understand their judicial philosophy and whether they understand natural law and natural rights and then the founding documents and how they fit together...I don't think that gets us far enough because natural law oftentfimes is used from the eye of the beholder," he continued. "What I'd like to see is things like their worldview.… Are they people of faith? Do they have a biblical view of justice? I think that is very important."
The moderator interrupted Whitaker and asked "Levitical or New Testament?" which is an indirect way of asking whether people of the Jewish faith should be banned from serving as federal judges.
"I'm a New Testament," responded Whitaker to laughter. "And what I know is as long as they have that [New Testament] worldview that they'll be a good judge."
Under those guidelines, Whitaker would also question the ability of Muslim-Americans and other non-Christian Americans to sit on the federal bench.
If judges have a "secular worldview," said Whitaker, "where this is all we have here on Earth? Then I'm going to be very concerned about how they judge."
The comments that suggest judges need to have a biblical view of justice are "deeply troubling and require immediate clarification," an Anti-Defamation League spokesperson told Newsweek. "The notion that non-Christian judges are disqualified from service is patently wrong, and completely inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly bars any religious test for public office," he said.
The ADL also pointed out that these views were "contrary to the mission statement of the Department of Justice—'to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law… and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.'"
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Matthew Whitaker was appointed by President Donald Trump as interim attorney general on Wednesday after his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, was suddenly ousted from office.
Trump has long vented publicly about Sessions's decision to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Whitaker has been vocal about his opposition to the investigation and has said on numerous occasions that he believes it should be defunded.
Under a normal line of succession, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was overseeing the investigation, would have taken over the top role. Instead, Trump handpicked Whitaker who was acting as Sessions's chief of staff.
The Department of Justice has nearly 100,000 employees, a $30 billion budget and oversees all federal law enforcement in the country.