Government support for religion is not only justified by the Constitution, it was the norm for hundreds of years and it helped the United States become a free and prosperous nation, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said Saturday in Metairie.
Speaking before a small crowd at Archbishop Rummel High School, Scalia delivered a short but provocative speech on religious freedom that saw the conservative Catholic take aim at those who confuse freedom of religion for freedom from it.
The Constitution’s First Amendment protects the free practice of religion and forbids the government from playing favorites among the various sects, Scalia said, but that doesn’t mean the government can’t favor religion over nonreligion.
That was never the case historically, he said. It didn’t become the law of the land until the 60s, Scalia said, when he said activist judges attempted to resolve the question of government support of religion by imposing their own abstract rule rather than simply observing common practice.
If people want strict prohibition against government endorsement of religion, let them vote on it, he said. “Don’t cram it down the throats of an American people that has always honored God on the pretext that the Constitution requires it.”
Citing a quotation attributed to former French President Charles de Gaulle, Scalia said “‘God takes care of little children, drunkards and the United States of America.'” Scalia then added, “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.”
Scalia has long been a vocal advocate for a conservative reading of the First Amendment’s clause on religion. In Scalia’s view, the courts should interpret it based on the text itself, which doesn’t expressly prohibit government support for religion, and common practice.
At the time the Constitution was written, religion was ubiquitous. Scalia noted that Thomas Jefferson, who first invoked the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state,” also penned Virginia’s religious freedom law, founded a university with dedicated religious space and, in writing the Declaration of Independence, regularly invoked God.
Such deference for a higher power has been consistent ever since, Scalia said.
The American people have clearly demonstrated a tolerance for government support of religion by enacting laws that exempt church property from taxation, he said. Congress even has clergymen on the payroll.
Given the history and subsequent common practice, Scalia called it “absurd” to interpret the First Amendment in such a way that banishes any government expression of support for religion.
The court’s habit of formulating abstract rules, such as the one that established the so-called religious neutrality doctrine, reminded Scalia of the late Robert Kennedy’s famous line 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.”
It is a lofty sentiment on its surface, Scalia said, but the implications are dark, particularly in the context of the original quote, which comes from a play by George Bernard Shaw.
In the play, Scalia said, the line was spoken by a serpent and addressed to a woman named Eve.