May 2010 Church & State | Editorial

Justice John Paul Stevens, who has served his country admirably on the Supreme Court since 1975, announced his retirement last month. At age 90, Stevens is capping a remarkable career, one marked by his steadfast devotion to the principles of the U.S. Constitution.

One of those principles is the separation of church and state. Stevens’ support for this principle is legendary, and throughout his career he was a reliable supporter of Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state. Stevens opposed government aid for religious schools and other institutions, voted against religious coercion in public schools and warned of the dangers of symbolic endorsement of religion by government.

Stevens, appointed by President Gerald Ford, knew that where church and state are joined, inter-religious strife and suppression of minority rights often follow.

When the high court upheld Ohio’s voucher subsidies for religious schools in 2002, Stevens was dismayed.

“Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundations of our democracy,” he warned.

In 2002, Stevens wrote the majority opinion in a Texas case voiding school-sponsored prayers at football games and other extracurricular events. He pointed out that “the choice between whether to attend these games or to risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual is in no practical sense an easy one” and insisted that the Constitution “demands that the school may not force this difficult choice upon these students.”

Most satisfyingly, Stevens knew why some of his fellow justices were wrong to support bringing religion and government into partnership.

We hope Justice Stevens enjoys a healthy and happy retirement. We also hope President Barack Obama chooses to honor Stevens and his legacy in the most fitting way we can imagine: by appointing a successor who holds Stevens’ values and understands the crucial role the church-state wall plays in safeguarding religious freedom.