Last night, with the death of retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens at 99, we lost one of the more liberal judges to sit on that bench — a surprise in some respects given that he was a Republican earlier in his career. He became a fierce defender of civil liberties and church/state separation, dissented in Bush v. Gore, and led a liberal wing of the Court for many years.
Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has an excellent overview of Stevens’ church/state legacy, including a look at cases that aren’t getting a lot of space in his obituaries. They provide a glimpse at how important his vote and his decisions were, like when it came to using taxpayer money to fund religious schools.
Stevens took the position that no American should be forced to pay taxes to support the religion of another. He also understood why government attempts to “help” religion end up weakening faith groups. In a 1976 case, Roemer v. Board of Public Works, he dissented from a ruling upholding a Maryland law that gave state grants to religious colleges.
“I would add emphasis to the pernicious tendency of a state subsidy to tempt religious schools to compromise their religious mission without wholly abandoning it,” he wrote. “The disease of entanglement may infect a law discouraging wholesome religious activity as well as a law encouraging the propagation of a given faith.”
Four years later, Stevens warned against all forms of taxpayer aid to religious schools in his dissent in the case Committee for Public Education v. Regan.
His defense of the wall of separation was evident later in his career, too:
Fifteen years later, Stevens was just as powerful when he penned the majority opinion in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a decision striking down coercive prayer at public school events like football games.
“School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,’” he wrote.
We’re fortunate that there are other justices who carry his torch in that regard. Just not enough of them. Some justices are perfectly willing to give religion greater power than it deserves, knowing full well that Christianity will almost always be the beneficiary of those decisions.
Still, at a time when the judiciary is under assault from the Trump administration, eager to install as many young, incompetent, right-wing, anti-abortion advocates as possible while they have the numbers, take a second to pay your respects to someone who was a defense against precisely what the Republicans are doing today.
(Screenshot via YouTube)