American Culture

Scalia and categorical religious beliefs

SCotUSJustice Antonin Scalia believes that “religious beliefs aren’t reasonable.” He is not saying that religious beliefs are not appropriate or not fair–that would be a shock, coming from him. Rather he goes on to say that “I mean, religious beliefs are categorical.” In other words, religious beliefs are unequivocal or unconditional.

Scalia made that statement yesterday during oral arguments for the case Holt v. Hobbs. The case involves a prisoner in Arkansas, Gregory Holt, who is a convert to Islam. He wishes to wear a beard in accordance with his new-found religious beliefs. The state of Arkansas is insisting on enforcing its state-law which prohibits prisoners from wearing religiously-motivated beards for security reasons (namely the threat of prisoners hiding contraband in their beards). Holt tried to be “reasonable” about his request and agreed to limit the growth to a half-inch. Scalia’s response to Holt’s request, reported in The Washington Post,  is telling:

“Well, religious beliefs aren’t reasonable,” Scalia said. “I mean, religious beliefs are categorical. You know, it’s ‘God tells you.’ It’s not a matter of being reasonable. God be reasonable? He’s supposed to have a full beard.”

This had led me to ponder several questions:

  • Does Justice Scalia believe that all religious beliefs are equally categorical and binding on followers? Or that only some religious beliefs (such as his Catholic ones) are categorical and binding on everyone?
  • Are justices, judges, legislators, and public-servants in general, obligated to put their categorical religious beliefs before their civic obligations? In other words, do categorical religious beliefs trump state or federal laws or even the Constitution?
  • In a case where the judge and defendant’s beliefs are in conflict, whose beliefs should prevail?

Not surprisingly, I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, especially not where Justice Scalia is concerned. Or Clarence Thomas or Samuel Alito, for that matter. To me it seems like a clear case of separation of Church and State. And it would follow that a Justice would need to check his catechism at the door in favor of the Constitution. After all, that’s the document that they took the oath (actually two oaths) to defend.

“I, _________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.  So help me God.”


“I, _________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as _________ under the Constitution and laws of the United States.  So help me God.”

Of course the astute observer will note that the justice or judge also swears to god twice. And it is, well, reasonable to question which part of those oaths, combined with other religious oaths or creeds which one might have sworn to at one point or else routinely recite on Sunday morning, takes precedence in the mind of the individual. Especially if he espouses the opinion that “religious beliefs are categorical.”

3 replies »

  1. In light of your question of which takes precedence, I find it telling that for a person who holds the Gospels to be a true representation of history (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), and a true account of words and deeds of Jesus (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), the obligation to take these two oaths of office clearly takes precedence over the explicit injunction against taking oaths in general found in Matthew. Apparently it’s not just the religious beliefs that are unreasonable and categorical, but also the selective whims of the believer who gets to pick and choose which religious dictates are worth observing and which aren’t.