Last Sunday, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia addressed the Living the Catholic Faith Conference conference in Denver, Colorado. During his speech, however, the justice appeared to suggest that Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians are somehow less rational than people who share his faith:
In Washington, Scalia said, the pundits and media couldn’t believe in a miracle performed under their noses.
“My point is not that reason and intellect need to be laid aside,” Scalia said. “A faith without a rational basis should be laid aside as false. … What is irrational is to reject a priori the possibility of miracles in general and the resurrection of Jesus Christ in particular.”
“A priori” is a philosophical term which is usually used to refer to a claim that one has knowledge independent of experience, so it is unclear how anyone could reject the central Christian belief that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead under Scalia’s standard given that no living person was around to actually experience it. More importantly, though, the clear implication of Scalia’s statement appears to be than all non-Christians — or approximately two-thirds of the world’s population — are “irrational.”
If Scalia indeed holds this view, than it raises serious questions about whether he can set aside this belief when called upon to interpret a Constitution that requires all religious beliefs to be treated with equal dignity. Moreover, it could have profound implications for the burgeoning debate over whether the Obama Administration’s contraceptive access rules are upheld by the Supreme Court.
In 1990, Scalia wrote the seminal Supreme Court case interpreting the Constitution’s guarantee that all Americans can freely exercise their faith, Employment Div. v. Smith. In Smith, Scalia explained that a law does not suddenly become unconstitutional because someone raises a religious objection to it. Scalia explained that “the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).’” This is why a law ensuring access to contraception is constitutional even if several Catholic bishops object to it.
Smith, however, did not involve Christians — it involved members of a Native American faith that wanted to use the drug peyote in a sacred ritual even though that drug was banned. Hopefully, Scalia recognizes that the rule he announced in Smith must apply equally to faiths he views as “rational” and those he also may view as “irrational.”