Scalia and the Friars: a look at his views on religion and the law

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dead at 79
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dead at 79

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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dead at 79 02:58

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  • A devout Catholic, Scalia was just as home in a church as he was on the bench, and his trademark wit and passion were on display at both

Washington (CNN)On a dreary day a few weeks before he died, Justice Antonin Scalia delivered a talk to an unusual Washington audience: a room full of Dominican Friars in white robes.

True to form, he provoked a debate about Saint Thomas Aquinas, the intellectual giant of the Dominican Order.
Scalia pointed to some of the Great Dominican's writings on the law and justice and suggested that Saint Thomas Aquinas wasn't always a strict textualist. "Horrors!" Scalia exclaimed to laughter.
A devout Catholic, Scalia was just as home in a church as he was on the bench, and his trademark wit and passion were on display at both.
"If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world," he told an audience in the Knights of Columbus Council in 2005, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported at the time.
He made light of his faith too, on occasion.
Of his nine children, one, Paul, became a priest. "He took one for the team," Scalia said more than once to laughter.
In an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" in 2008, he said that he and his wife Maureen, didn't set out to have 9 children. "We're just old-fashioned Catholics, playing what used to be known as 'Vatican Roulette,'" he said.
His critics would say that Scalia did not draw a clear enough line between government and religion.
"Justice Scalia's jurisprudence embraced government promotion of religion generally and Christianity in particular -- be it official prayers before city council meetings and high-school graduations, Ten Commandments plaques on courthouse walls, or Latin crosses at war memorials," said Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "But as a result, his opinions seemed to dismiss concerns about the religious liberty of religious minorities, atheists, and agnostics, among others. Unfortunately, those who don't share their elected leaders' religious beliefs are often unable to participate fully in public life when the government abandons religious neutrality."
Scalia believed that Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion was incorrectly decided and he dissented in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that cleared the way for gay marriage nationwide.
A year ago, in a joint appearance with the liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he addressed both topics. The rulings, Scalia said, were about what the Constitution said -- or didn't say.
"The issue on gay rights, on abortion, on many of the issues in which Ruth's opinions and my opinions differ does not pertain to the substance, it doesn't pertain to whether gay people ought to have those rights — whether there ought to be a constitutional right — a right to abortion," he said at an event sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates. "That isn't the issue, the issue is quite simply who decides, that's all."
In an interview with CNN in 2012, Piers Morgan probed Scalia on his faith.
2012: Scalia: Constitution says nothing about abortion
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2012: Justice Antonin Scalia on death penalty, torture
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"How do you, as a conservative Catholic, how do you not bring your personal sense of what is right and wrong to that kind of decision? Because clearly, as a conservative Catholic, you're going to be fundamentally against abortion?" Morgan asked.
Scalia was adamant in his view that the Constitution doesn't prohibit or allow abortion. "Just as the pro-choice people say the Constitution prohibits the banning of abortion, so, also, the pro-life people say the opposite. They say that the Constitution requires the banning of abortion, because you're depriving someone of life without due process of law."
Scalia forged unlikely friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg
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He added: "I reject that argument just as I reject the other one. The Constitution, in fact, says nothing at all about the subject. It is left to democratic choice. Now, regardless of what my views as a Catholic are, the Constitution says nothing about it."
Scalia rarely missed an opportunity in his speeches and appearances to press his views on how the law should be interpreted.
"My shtick is, as you may know, textualism," he told the Friars. " I believe that judges should adhere to the text of the law and not amend or revise it to accord with what they think the law ought to be," he said as he launched a critique of Thomas Aquinas.
The friars then moved to the Belgian gothic chapel next door and chanted psalms to each other. Scalia, sitting in the front row, joined in their prayer.