Friday, December 17, 2004

Head of Anti-Defamation League Comments on Scalia's November Synagogue Appearance

National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham H. Foxman, wrote an editorial piece that ran in yesterday's New York Sun, commenting on Justice Scalia's November visit to New York City's Shearith Israel Synagogue (see post from 12/07/04). The editorial is written in a gentle, erudite style, refreshingly void of the usual rhetorical flak. (See, e.g., editorials from the New York Times and Washington Times discussed in a posting yesterday). The editorial intelligently questions Justice Scalia's faith in religiously-neutral legislation. Citing to Founding Father James Madison, Mr. Foxman writes that the First Amendment contains a " constitutional wall between church and state . . . [, created] to ensure that minority faiths and nonbelievers could hold their ground in the political arena."

The editorial's content and tone reflect Mr. Foxman's intelligence and wisdom, undoubtedly gained from being on the front lines of religious discrimination. Foxman has a JD from NYU School of Law, and interestingly, survived the Holocaust because he was raised Catholic by his Polish nanny. Sounds like a Mensch to me!

Here's the text of Foxman's New York Sun editorial, titled "Concurring in Part, and Dissenting in Part:"


Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently addressed an interfaith conference on religious freedom at New York City's Congregation Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Shearith Israel is the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, founded in 1654 by 23 Sephardic Jews who fled to Dutch New Amsterdam from the Portuguese colony of Brazil. These refugees sought a safe haven in which to practice their faith because the Portuguese had brought the dreaded Inquisition to the New World.
The thrust of Justice Scalia's message was that America - from its very beginnings - has been largely inhabited by peoples of faith and, as a result, the nation has prospered. He went even further, however, and questioned the established American legal doctrine of maintaining a strict separation between matters of church and state, arguing that the "founding fathers never used the phrase 'separation of church and state' " in the Constitution. According to Justice Scalia, the neutrality mandated by the Constitution insofar as the state's participation in religion is concerned "is not neutrality between religiousness and non-religiousness; it is between denominations of religion." Thus making a claim for more governmental support for religion in general, the justice maintained that the scope of such religious neutrality should be left to the democratic process.
Respectfully, Justice Scalia's homily was only partially correct. He is absolutely right that America is and has been throughout its history the most religious democracy in the modern world. He is also right that much of this nation's great strength and prosperity derive from the fertile ground of free conscience and the constitutionally protected ability to cultivate one's faith for the good of the commonwealth. But he is simply wrong to place these miraculous traits in opposition to the American ideal of church/state separation. To the contrary, this important safeguard - which protects the integrity of both religious practice and secular governance - has likely done more than anything else to sustain the predominant and diverse culture of faith in American society.
Justice Scalia - a "textualist" jurist who strictly interprets the Constitution as written - should have known better than to argue otherwise. The text of the Constitution makes no reference to the government's religious neutrality as simply guaranteeing impartial treatment among religious denominations. The First Amendment clearly states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the Establishment of religion...or the free exercise thereof." These plain words convey a simple but powerful message: Government may not support religion of any kind nor interfere with anyone's religious observance.
In fact, precisely because the founders lacked Justice Scalia's full confidence in majoritarian democracy, they constructed the constitutional wall between church and state in order to ensure that minority faiths and nonbelievers could hold their ground in the political arena. James Madison, the primary author of the First Amendment, warned that legislation in support of religion - even Justice Scalia's so-called "neutral" legislation - "degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority."
In trying to bolster his argument, Justice Scalia reached beyond the text of the Constitution and into the pages of Jewish history. "Did it turn out that, by reason of the separation of church and state, the Jews were safer in Europe than they were in the United States of America?" he asked. "I don't think so," he answered. "You will not hear the word 'God' cross the lips of the French premier or an Italian head of state," Justice Scalia said. "But that has never been the American way."
Maybe so, but this comparison is both inapt and somewhat insensitive. The European experience with church-state separation is incomplete. Although many European countries have embraced the American aversion to national religious institutions, they have been less forthcoming in protecting the right of each individual to exercise his or her own faith freely. One need only look to the recent legislation in France prohibiting traditional religious garb in public schools and other state-run facilities for an example of what most Americans - atheists and believers alike - would view as blatant religious discrimination.
Indeed, it is the historic lack of a vigorous European commitment to promoting religious pluralism, rather than the secularity of European governments today, which explains the inadequacy of Justice Scalia's proffered evidence. Ironically, few can appreciate this point more than the Congregation of Shearith Israel, whose own founders' deep and abiding faith was enabled only by a nation's full commitment to the separation of church and state.

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