Return to story

Religious freedom praised

January 13, 2003 1:13 am


Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (right) speaks to the crowd gathered yesterday at the Religious Freedom Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg for a ceremony sponsored by the Rappahannock Assembly of the Knights of Columbus. loscalia3.jpg

Quantico Marine Corp Base's honor guard participates in the Religious Freedom Day ceremony held yesterday in Fredericksburg,
at which Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said the U.S. Constitution doesn't mandate separation of government and religion.

Helene Zaepfel of Suffolk, here to visit family, prays during the Religious Freedom Day celebration in the city yesterday afternoon.

Justice Scalia decries change in U.S. norms

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stood on Washington Avenue facing the city's Religious Freedom Monument yesterday and bemoaned the nation's departure from the tradition the stone structure represents.

He noted the U.S. Constitution forbids government from establishing a religion or prohibiting individuals from their free exercise of it. But it does not, he said, mandate a separation of government and religion--an interpretation that has grown popular over the past half-century.

"The establishment clause was once well understood not to exclude God from the public forum and political life," Scalia told a crowd of nearly 150 gathered to commemorate the 226th anniversary of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Scalia, whose son Paul is a priest at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Spotsylvania County, said the nation's founding fathers acknowledged a sovereign God in establishing the government--as did the men who framed Virginia's statute in Fredericksburg in 1777. That statute served as the model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"Separation of church and state was not our tradition until later," Scalia told the assembly of Protestants and Catholics gathered for yesterday's ceremony.

Scalia cited President George Washington's establishment of a Thanksgiving proclamation that, he said, "gave thanks to God for the formation of the United States and asked the creator to forgive us our national transgressions."

Scalia also noted that Congress has always employed chaplains, that every military service uses them and that an inscription on the nation's coins and currency reads "In God We Trust."

Scalia, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan and has been an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court since 1986, also recited the statement he hears each time the high court convenes: "God save the United States and this honorable court."

Scalia contrasted America's principle of freedom of religion with the European attitude forbidding public officials from invoking the name of God--noting the differences historically and today.

The U.S. policy, he said, "is quite different from the tradition of secularism--of hostility to religion--that swept across Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and that became fashionable at about the same time Thomas Jefferson did his draft of the Virginia statute."

Scalia recalled hearing one European official lament that attitude as they listened to President Bush's speech immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Scalia, attending an international conference of judges in Rome that day, was approached by one jurist after Bush concluded his speech with the words, "God bless America."

"[He] approached me with tears in his eyes and said, 'How I wish the prime minister of my country or the president of my country could say such a thing.'"

Scalia responded to someone in yesterday's crowd who held a sign saying religion should be kept out of government.

He said he had no problem with that philosophy if it was decided by a vote of American citizens.

Scalia said the nation's intolerance of religion has grown over the past several decades. It has moved from a 1947 Supreme Court ruling that said allowing children to leave school early to attend religious instruction was in the best tradition of the nation, to an era where high schools are forbidden from having nondenominational speakers lead benedictions at graduation ceremonies.

It is that shift--which he traced to the tenure of Chief Justice Earl Warren--that in June led a federal appeals court in California to rule it unconstitutional for students to include the phrase "one nation, under God" when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, he said.

Scalia concluded his remarks at the Religious Freedom Day observance with a request.

"On this day, when we're celebrating our constitutional heritage, I urge you to be faithful to that heritage--to impose on our fellow citizens only the restrictions that are there in the Constitution, not invent new ones, not to invent the right because it's a good idea."

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.