Apr 16, 2009

We don't hear much from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He hasn't asked a question during oral arguments at the high court in more than two years.

So when the George H.W. Bush appointee does agree to speak at a public event, we look forward to hearing his thoughts -- especially when he is asked to speak on the Bill of Rights. That's something we'd like to hope he knows quite a bit about as a Supreme Court justice.

But recently, when Thomas took the podium to address high school essay-contest winners, he seemed to forget he was there to talk about the Constitution.

Instead, according to Tuesday's report in The New York Times, the justice's love for the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and his awe over the wonder that is the dishwasher seemed to take precedence.

Thomas also reminisced about his youth, when students "began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance as little kids lined up in the schoolyard and then marched in two by two with a flag and a crucifix in each classroom."

When he finally got around to discussing our "rights," he didn't want to address those that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had in mind.

"Today there is much focus on our rights," Justice Thomas said. "Indeed, I think there is a proliferation of rights.

"I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances," he said. "Shouldn't there at least be equal time for our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities?"

Thomas told the high schoolers that as Americans, we think we have a "right" to air-conditioning, cars, telephones and televisions. He then went on to discuss how he is "one of those people that still thinks the dishwasher is a miracle."

"What a device!" he exclaimed. "And I have to admit that because I think that way, I like to load it. I like to look in and see how the dishes were magically cleaned."

But these conveniences, such as the miraculous dishwasher, are luxuries that we really have no right to, Thomas told the students.

I'm pretty sure that when the Bill of Rights Institute invited Justice Thomas to speak, these weren't the "rights" the group expected to hear about. After all, the Institute's mission is to educate America's youth about "the words and ideas of America's Founders, the liberties guaranteed in our Founding documents, and how our Founding principles continue to affect and shape a free society."

Fortunately, the students' questions got Thomas back on track. For example, they asked about how his faith influences his decisions.

"There are some cases that will drive you to your knees," he added. "In those moments you ask for strength and wisdom to have the right answer and the courage to stand up for it. Beyond that, it would be illegitimate, I think, and a violating of my oath to incorporate my religious beliefs into the decision-making process."

That's not a bad comment. But this is not the first time Thomas has made it seem he is a fan of church-state separation.

In 1991 – during his confirmation hearings -- he told the Senate Judiciary Committee: "I think the wall of separation is an appropriate metaphor. I think we all believe that we would like to keep the government out of our beliefs, and we would want to keep a separation between our religious lives and the government."

But since Thomas has taken his seat on the bench, the justice has perpetually railed against the court's separationist interpretation of church-state doctrine. In many of his opinions, Thomas claims the First Amendment merely protects against a national religion. Under Thomas' view, each state should be free to incorporate as much religion as it sees fit into its own state government, without federal government interference.

So while it's always pleasant to hear support for church-state separation, it would be nice if Justice Thomas truly supported the doctrine in practice.

Maybe if he felt as good about church-state separation as he does the dishwasher, our job at Americans United would become a little bit easier.