Justice Antonin Scalia gave a talk and answered questions at the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson. During the Q&A, he rather blatantly distorted Jefferson’s views on separation of church and state, claiming that he did not favor building such a wall.
Scalia has taken heavy criticism in the past for downplaying the phrase “separation of church and state.” He reiterated his position Thursday evening, when he answered a student who asked if America was truly a Christian nation. Scalia said the phrase, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, is often misunderstood.
“He did not believe in the ‘wall of separation of church and state’ you often hear him quoted for,” Scalia said.
Jefferson wrote that phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptist association of Connecticut. It has been cited in Supreme Court rulings, but critics say it has been misinterpreted and taken out of context, that Jefferson was addressing the concerns of the association that the right of religious freedom could be taken away.
Scalia characterized Jefferson as a religious man, quoting from his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the forerunner to First Amendment protections on religious freedom. The statute begins, “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it … tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion. …”
Scalia quipped, “Put this in your pipe for separation of church and state.”
But his premise is entirely irrelevant to the conclusion he is falsely drawing. No serious person questions whether Jefferson believed in God (though clearly not the Christian version), but belief in God has nothing to do with what he believed about the relationship of church and state. Jefferson also fought to disestablish the official church of Virginia and urged other states to do the same. And he wrote extensively in his letters and public papers about his views on separation.
For crying out loud, if he “did not believe” in the “wall of separation of church and state,” then how does Scalia explain the full quote from that letter to the Danbury Baptists about the First Amendment:
“I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should `make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
It could hardly be more clear. He said that the First Amendment was intended to build a wall of separation of church and state and that he regards that with “solemn reverence.” In other writings, he argues that this forbids even passive statements of support for religion like declarations of days of prayer and thanksgiving (he disagreed with Washington and Adams on the subject). So on what basis does Scalia claim that Jefferson did not believe in this wall of separation? His argument sounds like it was rectally derived. There is no evidence for it and much evidence against it.