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Morph This!

by Paul F. Heller Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2003 at 1:51 AM

Look what happens when you let a Supreme Court Justice run loose in the neighborhood...

Antonin Scalia has spoken, and so we can actually see the workings of the mind of a Supreme Court Justice. He was the keynote speaker at Religious Freedom Day in Fredericksburg, Virginia (where, even after the Revolution, residents could choose to be Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, or nothing at all). His son is a Catholic priest in the area – apparently, black shirts run in the Scalia family. The judge's speech revolved around the central idea that the Constitution is being interpreted in too liberal a fashion. I'm not surprised. Still, conservatism's biggest advocate for tearing down the wall that separates the church and the state couldn't think of any better example of Constitutional liberal latitude than last year's absurd ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the phrase "under God" did not belong in the Pledge of Allegiance.

I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing politicians (and Scalia is the worst kind of politician ... the kind we didn't elect) using religion as a foundation for their conservative nightmare vision of America. Religion is what makes us a strong people. It is found everywhere in this great country, in our hearts and homes, in our houses of worship, at hospital bedsides, on airplanes during turbulent flights, behind the wheel during rush hour, in boxing rings. Americans are a spiritual people, as we saw after September 11th. It is a good thing, but for a public figure to use it in order to curry favor to his position, no matter what that position might be, is a bad thing. Nobody appreciates a capricious view of religion; it always leads to trouble.

Our faith, while it keeps us strong and true, has nothing to do with the Constitution of the United States, and the establishment clause spells that out pretty clearly. While that may not give the 9th Circuit the power to strip words out of the Pledge, it may in fact call for some other words to be included, like "Buddha" or "Vishnu". That's the sort of stickiness that derives from the idea that the government shouldn't be establishing religion for the people.

Scalia's appearance, however, spoke directly to the cobweb-like strands that Christian conservatives have spun, hoping to link our system of government to their brand of religion. They at least have one Supreme Court Justice in their corner. But his words are sure to add a fresh coat of paint to the floor surrounding that corner, for his views are extreme, in accordance with those who believe him:

"It is a Constitution," he said, "that morphs while you look at it, like Plasticman." Like Plasticman? It morphs while you look at it? Oh, Dear God. I have indeed seen things morph while I looked at them, but that was in way back in college (somebody must've slipped something in my drink). I haven't seen anything morph, at least not while I was looking at it, in quite a long time. That the supreme law of the land is this doughy substance in the eyes of someone whose sole reason for employment is to interpret whether laws conform to the Constitution – not the other way around – causes me great fright. In fact, it puts me on my worried knees.

Scalia blathered on, saying that the Founding Fathers did not mean for God to be taken out of public life. "That is contrary to our whole tradition, to 'in God we trust' on the coins, to Thanksgiving proclamations, to chaplains, to tax exemption for places of worship." For a highly placed public official to stand up and try to tell a free and law-abiding people what the Founding Fathers meant is political heresy ... and that's the beauty of the Constitution. We don't have to wallow around in our own thoughts, trying to figure out what the framers meant. They actually wrote down what they meant, and not for highly placed public officials to find malleable this far down the road.

As far as what Scalia calls "our tradition" is concerned, the minting of our currency took place long after the Founding Fathers were dead, and the "Thanksgiving proclamations" (whatever that means) are based on something that took place long before they were born. Our chaplains, in Congress and in the military, are paid for with tax dollars; they are public servants, just like he is, and, as with tax exemptions for places of worship, that's strictly a matter for the Congress to handle.

Scalia does understand the legislative process. He even called for more of it, saying that the "under God" phrase should have been dealt with "democratically." You know, the same way in which the current president was hired. That's how the phrase got in the pledge in the first place, in the 1950s, which was quite a long time after the first Constitutional Congress. With all of this in mind, who really espouses a "liberal" interpretation of the Constitution?

While that hallowed document may seem like Silly Putty to Justice Scalia, it is a bit more than that to me. I like to think of it more in terms of Legos. It is a toy that can be built, block by block, and taken apart the same way, with a permanent base and a structured design. The last thing I want to see this thing do is morph before my eyes. You see, before any of those blocks can go on or come off, some work has to be done; there has to be a majority vote in Congress, which then must be ratified by our elected representatives. The victors of the Revolutionary War set up rigorous guidelines for changing the laws, for they didn't want anybody tinkering around with it, bending it, twisting its arms behind its back, stretching its neck.

Antonin Scalia has made the best case possible for his own removal from the bench. But darn those old coots, they get appointed for life. It would be easier to extract your own teeth with your fingers than it would be to get rid of a faulty Supreme Court Justice. All we can do is pray.

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