Scalia’s chutzpah, Clinton’s veto – Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia’s views on religious persecution; Clinton’s veto of a ban on a rarely-used abortion procedure – Church and State

Scalia’s chutzpah, Clinton’s veto – Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia’s views on religious persecution; Clinton’s veto of a ban on a rarely-used abortion procedure – Church and State – Column

Edd Doerr

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is rather like the fellow convicted of murdering his parents, who then asked the sentencing judge to show mercy to an orphan.

On April 19, 1996, speaking at a meeting sponsored by the Christian Legal Society at the Mississippi College School of Law, a Southern Baptist institution, Scalia complained that the modern world is unfriendly to “traditional” Christians and regards them as “simple-minded.” The “worldly wise,” he added, “just will not have anything to do with miracles.” He went on, “We are fools for Christ’s sake” and “we must pray for the courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world.”

Columnist Colman McCarthy, a Catholic like Scalia, reacted strongly:

This was less a speech than an outburst. Scalia refuses to release the full text of his comments. But enough excerpts have been reported to confirm that he has joined the ranks of those Christians who, in hunkered poses, fantasize that secular society is persecuting them….By declaring himself and his prayer breakfast audience “fools for Christ’s sake,” Scalia can further advance his martyr complex when critics dissent from his opinion: scorn of his views equals bias against religion.

Said James Dunn, director of the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington:

This is becoming a modern myth: that religion is somehow persecuted in American life. It’s a right-wing litmus test. If you don’t say religion is being beat up on, then you aren’t politically correct. Everyone is competing to see who can whine the loudest.

Scalia has raised hypocrisy to an art form. It was Scalia who wrote the five-to-four ruling in Employment Division v. Smith in 1990 denying application of the free-exercise clause to a couple of Native Americans in Oregon. Pontificated Scalia, “We cannot afford the luxury of deeming presumptively invalid, as applied to the religious objector, every regulation of conduct that does not protect an interest of the highest order.” Thus did Scalia’s bare majority on the Court sweep away the Court’s precedents requiring a governmental “compelling interest” to override free-exercise claims. Scalia’s ruling so alarmed civil libertarians and the religious spectrum from left to right that a broad coalition (including the American Humanist Association) got Congress to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to correct his mistake.

Scalia whines about persecution, yet he has worked overtime to tear down the constitutional wall of separation between church and state that is religious freedom’s best protection. In his relevant Court opinions, most of them (happily) still dissents, he has favored government-sponsored devotions in public schools, coercing tax-payers to fund sectarian private schools, and the intrusion of the fundamentalist doctrine of creationism in public-school science classes, while opposing freedom of conscience for women dealing with problem pregnancies.

Appointed by Ronald Reagan, Scalia’s presence on the Court once more underscores the importance of the presidential power to appoint Supreme Court justices.

On April 10, 1996, President Clinton vetoed H.R. 1833, a bill that would have imposed a nationwide ban on an abortion technique known as dilation and extraction (D&X), which is used primarily to terminate pregnancies after 20 weeks when a woman’s life or health is at risk. The procedure is used only about 600 times per year and is generally used as a last resort, when alternative procedures present unacceptable risks to the woman.

Following the veto, Clinton held a press conference during which several women who had undergone the procedure told their personal stories to show the potentially damaging effects H.R. 1833 would have had.

In his veto message, Clinton said that he would not sign such a measure unless it contained an exception allowing the procedure when necessary to protect a woman’s health. The bill–passed by the House 286 to 129 and in the Senate by a much narrower 54 to 44–was a largely Republican attempt to carve out a political issue in an election year. Clinton is pro-choice, while the Republican Party is officially anti-choice–a difference that has contributed to Clinton’s strong poll lead over Senator Bob Dole among women voters. Anti-choice forces lobbied a compliant Congress to pass the ban on so-called partial-birth abortions (which is not a medical term) in order to keep the abortion issue before the public.

Following Clinton’s veto, all public-relations hell broke loose. U.S. Catholic cardinals denounced the veto and said the procedure is “more akin to infanticide than abortion.” The Vatican added its condemnation and said it supported efforts to have Congress overturn the veto. Evangelist Billy Graham criticized the veto in a CNBC interview with ultraconservative columnist Cal Thomas shortly after meeting personally with Clinton, a supporter of Graham since he was a child. The usual anti-choice groups went ballistic and hope to use the issue to club President Clinton during the upcoming campaign.

But while presidential aspirant Bob Dole was slamming Clinton as an extremist, New Jersey’s Republican governor, Christine Todd Whitman, spoke for many pro-choice people in her party when she publicly supported Clinton’s veto.

Religious leaders representing the Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Jewish, United Church of Christ, Unitarian-Universalist, and humanist traditions expressed support for Clinton’s veto and urged Congress not to overturn it. The Reverend Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, Episcopal priest and president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said: “What we find beyond comprehension is how anyone, but especially religious leaders like the cardinals, could stoop to endangering women’s lives and exploiting their personal tragedies simply to make mileage in their efforts to stop all abortions.”

Rabbi Lynn Landsberg, director of the Mid-Atlantic Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, commented: “The general tenor of religious opposition to late-term abortion has grown increasingly callous and cynical.” The Reverend Walter Fauntroy, Baptist minister and former delegate to Congress from the District of Columbia, added: “The issue [of late-term] abortion is another example of people who ought to know better trying to convert the distortion of a basic moral imperative to their political advantage in pursuit of another goal.”

In a statement to President Clinton, the Religious Coalition stated:

We fully support your action in standing with women and their families who face tragic, untenable pregnancies….We are convinced that each woman who is faced with such difficult moral decisions must be free to decide how to respond, in consultation with her doctor, her family, and her God….That is where we believe the decision must remain.

Medical opinion also supports Clinton’s veto. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists fought the bill. Writing on the subject in the New York Times, Dr. Allan Rosenfield, professor of public health, obstetrics, and gynecology at Columbia, said:

Medical decisions should be based on scientific evidence gleaned from laboratories and clinical evaluation. Procedures should be judged on safety, effectiveness, availability, and affordability. Such decisions should not fall within the purview of ideology and politics. In considering abortion, doctors examine the best data available, consider the patient’s specific medical circumstances and, in consultation with the fully informed patient, decide on the best procedure. In declaring illegal the so-called partial birth abortion procedure, the House and Senate trampled on these criteria.

What political effect will the Clinton veto have? A Los Angeles Times poll found that a third of those polled would be more likely to vote for Clinton, a third would be less likely, and a third said it would make no difference–in other words, it’s a wash. Although liberal columnist Mary McGrory thinks the veto will hurt Clinton with Catholic voters, Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling disagrees, citing polls that show only a small minority of Catholics agreeing with the Vatican’s rigid anti-choice position.

I pointed out in the Washington Post on April 30 that Clinton’s veto “blocked political interference with medical judgment, defended the fundamental right of women to reproductive choice, and protected women from riskier alternate medical procedures.” The veto, I concluded, “will be seen as a courageous, if a bit politically risky, act of principle.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 American Humanist Association

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