Photo credit: DonkeyHotey/Flickr
By Tobin Grant and Daniel Bennett
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly Saturday (Feb. 14) approached the law with a clear (albeit controversial) jurisprudence on the First Amendment during his tenure on the high court. Scalia consistently argued that government could (and should) support religion. Over the past year, however, he adopted some unusual tactics to advocate for his position.
Last month, Scalia told a small audience in Louisiana this weekend that the government was not required to remain neutral on matters of religion. In fact, God, according to Scalia, had been good to America because of it.
Scalia told the audience at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, La., that government can (and should) favor religion over nonreligion. He sharply criticized his colleagues on the Court for their decisions to the contrary.
“Don’t cram it down the throats of an American people that has always honored God on the pretext that the Constitution requires it,” he said.
Scalia was the Court’s clearest advocate for an accommodationist view of church-state relations. Accommodationists call for a limited reading of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Scalia and other accommodationists agree that the Establishment Clause prohibits the federal government from, say, supporting a national church. But as far as general support for religion, such as displaying the 10 Commandments in courtrooms or praying in public schools? This is perfectly compatible with the First Amendment.
Scalia blasted the Court when it did not take this accomodationist view. In McCreary County v. ACLU, the Court ruled against a 10 Commandments display in a Kentucky courtroom, finding the display’s purpose was to advance religion. In a dissenting opinion Scalia said the majority had missed the point of the Establishment Clause: Honoring God and the Ten Commandments was not an endorsement of a particular religion.
He also raised these views in Lee v. Weisman, a case involving prayer at high school graduation ceremonies. Also dissenting in this case, Scalia panned the majority’s reasoning that school officials coerced students into praying as “incoherent,” and not true to an original understanding of the Establishment Clause.
Scalia wasn’t a passive jurist. Last term, he penned a rare rebuke of the Court after it decided not to take on a case involving a school district renting church facilities for a school’s commencement activities.
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