Speaking at a Louisiana high school over the weekend, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia raised eyebrows when he expressed a view he has long maintained: that the Constitution does not require the government to be neutral with respect to religion vs. non-religion. Yes, he says, the government cannot pick sides between religions or denominations, but it can and he says it should favor religion over non-religion.
Associated Press reports:
“To tell you the truth there is no place for [the idea that the state must not favor religion over non-religion] in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said. . . .
“God has been very good to us. That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways,” Scalia said.
“There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that,” he added.
It is true that the Court has upheld references to God in presidential proclamations, and on currency, or to solemnize certain official occasions. However, they have understood those references as a ceremonial acknowledgement of the role of faith in our country and its history, not as an official endorsement of religion.
Those of us who would counsel against such expressions of civil religion often argue that it creates exactly the false impression seized on by Justice Scalia in his view that the law rightly allows the state to show favor to religion. Government endorsement of religion over non-religion – even as a national strategy in line with Scalia’s questionable theology – undermines the freedom not to believe. That freedom must be vigorously protected if the freedom to believe is to maintain its potency.
Scalia is correct that official acknowledgments of God can be lawful, but is correct for the wrong reasons. Government should not be in the business of offering favor to religion.