Judging Alito: Church-State Entanglements

By Rogers, Melissa | The Christian Century, January 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

Judging Alito: Church-State Entanglements


Rogers, Melissa, The Christian Century


THE FIRST AMENDMENT protects religious freedom in two ways: by prohibiting the government from interfering with citizens' religious exercise and by barring the state from "establishing" a faith. Judging from his record, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito seems eager to bolster the first safeguard but inclined to erode the second.

In a 1985 application to be deputy assistant to the attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, Alito noted that he had "developed a deep interest in constitutional law, motivated in large part by disagreement with Warren Court decisions, particularly in the areas of criminal procedure, the Establishment Clause, and reapportionment." He added that it had been "an honor and source of personal satisfaction for me to serve in the office of the Solicitor General during President Reagan's administration and to help to advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly."

The most famous Warren Court Establishment Clause cases are decisions that struck down school-sponsored prayer and Bible readings in public school classrooms. The Reagan administration supported a constitutional amendment in 1982 that would have returned state-sponsored prayers to public schools. So Alito's statement raises questions about whether he would seek to reverse course on key religious-liberty issues that have been long settled.

When public schools sponsor prayers, the government invades a sacred realm. The state not only coerces the consciences of those who don't share whatever faith it chooses to embrace, but also gains a measure of control over how and when children worship. After more than 40 years in which religious diversity has increased in the country, any suggestion that the court should trim its sails on these decisions would be a radical and dangerous proposition.

In the 1996 case of ACLU v. Black Horse Pike Regional Board of Education, Alito dissented from a decision striking down a public school's policy that allowed the senior class to vote to determine if a student-led prayer would be included in high school graduation ceremonies. The federal appellate court on which Alito sits heard this case after the Supreme Court had decided the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, in which it prohibited clergy-led prayer at a middle school graduation, but before it heard the 2000 case of Doe v. Santa Fe, in which it struck down a policy allowing students to vote on whether prayers would be said before public high school football games.

The majority in Black Horse believed that the Lee decision dictated the result in the case, and it took issue with the notion that precious individual rights could be subjected to a school-sponsored majority vote. Joining a dissenting opinion written by one of his colleagues, Alito maintained that the Lee decision was limited to its specific facts. He found no constitutional fault with students' voting on prayer and said that the voting made it clear that any prayer was attributable to the students, not the state.

The judge's willingness to sacrifice individual liberties on the altar of majoritarianism reflects a judicial philosophy that could sanction various forms of state-sponsorship of popular faiths. This flouts the notion of equal religious liberty and the purpose of the Bill of Rights. As the Court said in 1943: "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights is to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."

Also embedded in the dissenting opinion in Black Horse is the idea that the Constitution permits the government to promote religion generally. In the 1968 decision of Epperson v. …

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