Justice Antonin Scalia’s Anti-Church/State Separation Legacy

In the hours following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Republicans have already said President Obama shouldn’t do his job by nominating a replacement, and have vowed to block anyone he chooses, further proving they’re incapable of doing their job.

So while pundits speculate on how this will play out, let’s take a look back at some of Scalia’s faith-based speeches and statements over the years. Because the Catholic justice never stopped trying to tear down the wall of separation between church and state, and he never hesitated to talk about his delusional beliefs.

(Image via Wikipedia)

(Image via Wikipedia)

Scalia believed that the Constitution said government couldn’t promote one religion over another, but it could absolutely promote religion over non-religion.

He said as much to students at Archbishop Rummel High School in Louisiana:

He told the audience… that there is “no place” in the country’s constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.

“To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said. “To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”

He also said there is “nothing wrong” with the idea of presidents and others invoking God in speeches. He said God has been good to America because Americans have honored him.

“I think the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over nonreligion,” Justice Scalia said.

“That’s a possible way to run a political system. The Europeans run it that way,” Justice Scalia said. “And if the American people want to do it, I suppose they can enact that by statute. But to say that’s what the Constitution requires is utterly absurd.”

He made the same claim back in 2009.

Last summer, he also told students at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart (where his granddaughter attends) that humanity was only in its 5,000th year of existence:

Class of 2015, you should not leave Stone Ridge High School thinking that you face challenges that are at all, in any important sense, unprecedented. Humanity has been around for at least some 5,000 years or so, and I doubt that the basic challenges as confronted are any worse now, or, alas, even much different, from what they ever were.

There was the time he said during oral arguments that “religious beliefs aren’t reasonable.” He didn’t quite mean it like that, but Scalia has always championed looking at the original text and not what we believe it meant to say.

Scalia famously said in a 2013 interview that he believed in a literal Devil. Which is a frightening thing to say when we’re supposed to trust his judgment.

It was one of Scalia’s decisions from 1990 that led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a countermeasure — RFRA is the same legislation that now allows companies Hobby Lobby to withhold comprehensive healthcare from their employees and lets Christian bakers refuse to serve gay or lesbian customers.

I will give him credit for one thing. When Michael Newdow challenged “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, Scalia recused himself from the case, having already made some disparaging comments about the Appeal Court’s decision. Though before you think he was being virtuous, it’s possible that he assumed the Supreme Court would never maintain a victory for Newdow, so his stepping down wouldn’t change anything. (In fact, the case was dismissed on standing.)

Scalia will be remembered by the Left for his opposition to LGBT rights and women’s rights, and Bush v. Gore, no doubt, but he also fought against the First Amendment (and the Establishment Clause specifically). Whenever religion and government got close, he did whatever he could to make the bond permanent. If he was unsuccessful, it was only because there were more sensible minds on the Court willing to push back.

While the future of the Court is still to be decided, his 5-4 majority decisions often made our country much worse for people who belonged to minority groups, whether they were ethnic, sexual, or religious. You can mourn his passing as you would anyone’s death, but it’s hard to say there are many tears being shed outside of his family and among conservatives who knew he was never going to be an impartial jurist.

At least now we have a chance to begin fixing his mistakes and reversing the damage he’s left behind in his wake.

(Edit: I made the connection between Scalia’s 1990 decision and RFRA more clear. RFRA was enacted to oppose Scalia’s decision, not passed as a direct result of it. Thanks to Kelsey for the correction)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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