By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Co-Founder and Co-President
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Last weekend, one of our nine U.S. Supreme Court justices (one of the six who are Roman Catholic) baldly stated that there is no such constitutional principle as governmental religious neutrality. In other words, there’s no such thing as freedom from religion.
Given our organization’s name and our current litigation, with any of these cases theoretically wending their way up to the Supreme Court, this pronouncement is cause for grave concern. As FFRF noted in our recent two-page ad in The New York Times celebrating the Bill of Rights:
“The framers of our godless and entirely secular Constitution revering freedom of conscience, wisely created a government free from religion. They understood there can be no religious liberty without the freedom to dissent.”
Clearly, Justice Antonin Scalia does not understand what the framers understood. In a speech Saturday at a Louisiana Catholic high school, he claimed that the Constitution doesn’t require governmental religious neutrality. He also made an embarrassing show of “God is on our side” hubris by proclaiming:
“God takes care of little children, drunkards and the United States of America. I think that’s true. God has been very good to us. One of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor.” (The first part of the quote was lifted from a very similar one that first appeared in 1856 in Harper’s magazine.)
According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Scalia told a small audience at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie that just because the First Amendment forbids the government from playing favorites among the various sects, that doesn’t mean the government can’t favor religion over nonreligion.
If people want strict prohibition against government endorsement of religion, let them vote on it, Scalia said, adding ungrammatically, “Don’t cram it down the throats of an American people that has always honored God on the pretext that the Constitution requires it.”
Scalia thus denied that the Bill of Rights was adopted, in part, to ensure that some rights, such as freedom of conscience, would be placed above the vicissitudes of tyranny of the majority.
Scalia blamed “activist” judges from the 1960s for the idea that government shouldn’t endorse religion. Of course, the first major Supreme Court decision on the Establishment Clause came down in 1947. The Everson case cogently explains the neutrality concept in a nutshell:
The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.” Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1
Scalia also managed a gratuitous putdown of women in the same speech. He claimed the court’s “habit” of formulating abstract rules such as the religious neutrality doctrine reminded him of the line by the late Robert F. Kennedy about the power of imagination to change the world: “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”
Scalia called the implications of that line “dark,” in the context of the original quote, which comes from the play “Back to Methuselah” by George Bernard Shaw. In the play, Scalia said, the line was spoken by a serpent and addressed to a woman . . . named Eve!
Scalia apparently is still haunted by that “wily” Devil, whom he famously admitted believing in, in an interview in October 2013. (That was the same interview where he seemed to be saying atheists “are the Devil’s work.”)
Honestly, how could atheists or secularists expect a fair and impartial hearing from such a justice?
FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. For more information and a copy of our paper, Freethought Today, please click here.