Thomas Jefferson's 265th birthday is this Sunday. While contemplating an article to honor him and his commitment to religious liberty, I came across a disturbing Associated Press report.
Apparently U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was at Mr. Jefferson's University yesterday to receive the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law.
The award recognizes those who "embrace endeavors that Jefferson...excelled in and held in high regard." I can think of precious few reasons why Justice Scalia deserves such an honor.
Scalia's attitude towards religious liberty is not one of them. Indeed, I can't think of a sitting jurist (save Justice Clarence Thomas) who has more contempt for the separation of church and state.
"Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers never intended to eliminate religion from government," Scalia told his audience.
Really? The Thomas Jefferson I know wrote often about the need to separate religion from government. He even opposed civic religious practices we consider common place today.
As president, Jefferson refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer. Even the mere suggestion by the president that people engage in religious activity, he wrote in 1808, would "indirectly assume to the U.S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from."
Jefferson understood that government actions carry with them authority and pressure to conform, and he feared dissenters would suffer public disdain on par with any punishment government could impose.
I don't think Jefferson would accept Scalia's observation in McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, that it is "entirely clear from our Nation's historical practices that the Establishment Clause permits this disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists."
Attempts to add "Jesus Christ" to Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (so it read: religious coercion is "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion") were overwhelmingly rejected. This was evidence, Jefferson later wrote, that the legislature "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."
Given Jefferson's commitment to religious liberty, I dare say he would object to an award bearing his name going to a jurist who has tried to demolish the wall of separation between church and state.