September 2019 Church & State Magazine | AU Bulletin

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a strong defender of separation of church and state, died July 16. He was 99.

Stevens was appointed to the high court in 1975 by President Gerald Ford and retired in 2010. During his 35 years on the court, Stevens staked out a position as a powerful ally of church-state separation.

Stevens opposed taxpayer support for religious schools. In a 1976 case, Roemer v. Board of Public Works, he warned that government attempts to help religion with money can backfire, citing “the pernicious tendency of a state subsidy to tempt religious schools to compromise their religious mission without wholly abandoning it.”

In a case from 1980, Committee for Public Education v. Regan, Stevens asserted, “[T]he entire enterprise of trying to justify various types of subsidies to nonpublic schools should be abandoned … I would resurrect the ‘high and impregnable’ wall between church and state constructed by the Framers of the First Amendment.”

In the 2002 school voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Stevens penned a powerful dissent, warning, “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.”

Stevens also opposed government-sponsored prayer in public schools and wrote the lead opinion in the 1985 case Wallace v. Jaffree that invalidated an Alabama “moment of silence” law and the 2000 ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that struck down coercive prayer at public school events like football games.

In 2005’s Van Orden v. Perry, a case dealing with the display of the Ten Commandments by government, Stevens criticized the view of church-state relations held by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, asserting that the two “would replace Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ with a perverse wall of exclusion – Christians inside, non-Christians out.”