Antonin Scalia was just one of six Roman Catholic justices on the Supreme Court, but in his devotion to the faith he was second to none. Neighbors saw him and his wife Maureen worshipping frequently at St. Catherine of Siena in Great Falls, Va., a church Scalia was said to favor because it was one of the few Catholic parishes in the Washington, D.C., area that still offered a Latin mass.
Scalia received his secondary and undergraduate education at Jesuit institutions, and as a justice he told students that as a young Catholic he endured meatless Fridays and fasting before Communion because the church had taught him and his peers “that we were different.” While other couples had small families, Scalia and his wife raised nine children. “Being a devout Catholic means you have children when God gives them to you,” he told his biographer Joan Biskupic.
The relation between Scalia’s Catholicism and his judicial decision-making was complex, however. On the one hand, his deeply religious beliefs may have reinforced the certainty of his convictions when it came to legal reasoning.
Paul Clement, who clerked for Scalia and went on to serve as solicitor general under President George W. Bush, told NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in an interview before Scalia’s death that as justice he looked for “bright lines” in the Constitution wherever he could.
“I think he thinks that his faith provides him clear answers,” Clement said, “and I think that’s sufficient unto him in most areas.”
On the other hand, Scalia vehemently denied that he let his Catholic beliefs dictate his legal judgment.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a Catholic judge,” Scalia said in a 2010 interview. “The only article in faith that plays any part in my judging is the commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Lie.'”
Views In Religious Cases
He was personally opposed to abortion, but his legal views on the issue were somewhat more nuanced. He argued there is no constitutional right to abortion (and therefore disagreed with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision), but inasmuch as it is not mentioned in the Constitution, he also argued that the government cannot prohibit states from permitting abortion.
As a committed Catholic, Scalia said he considered Pope Francis “the vicar of Christ,” but he did not attend the pope’s address to Congress in September 2015. Nor did the pope’s fierce opposition to the death penalty alter Scalia’s belief that the state has a constitutional right to impose it.
Advocates of religious liberty saw Scalia as a hero, citing his support for corporations that did not want to comply, for religious reasons, with the mandate under the Affordable Care Act to provide contraceptive services to employees.
But in a 1990 Court decision, Scalia argued that the First Amendment’s protection of the “free exercise” of religion did not necessarily mean people could use their religious beliefs as a reason not to obey generally applicable laws.
Writing for the majority, Scalia said, “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
That opinion was somewhat overtaken by the 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which expanded the conditions under which people could claim a religious exemption from existing laws.
On the religious liberty issue Scalia was not always consistent. When it came to gay marriage, he took an especially hard line.
In his dissent to the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex unions, Scalia argued that it was “extreme” for the court to endorse a practice “which is contrary to the religious beliefs of many of our citizens.”
That opinion prompted Richard A. Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, to comment that Scalia seemed to be suggesting “that the Constitution cannot override the religious beliefs of many American citizens,” a political ideal, Posner said, that “verges on majoritarian theocracy.”