January 2024 Church & State Magazine - January 2024

Americans United mourns passing of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor


Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor died on Dec. 1.

O’Connor, 93, was appointed to the high court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and retired in 2006. She was the first woman to serve on the court.

O’Connor’s record on separation of church and state was mixed. She was a solid vote against coercive programs of prayer and worship in public schools, and she was wary of allowing government too much leeway in erecting and displaying religious symbols. She supported reproductive rights, and over time grew more supportive of LGBTQ+ rights.

But O’Connor failed to see certain forms of taxpayer aid to religion, such as school vouchers, as a church-state violation. As a result, the high court upheld vouchers in 2002. Voucher programs now exist in states across the country, where they drain much-needed resources from public schools and foster taxpayer-funded discrimination and indoctrination.

O’Connor, however, did recognize that there must be some limits to government funding of religion. In 2007, after retiring from the Supreme Court, she sat by special designation on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and heard arguments in an Americans United-sponsored lawsuit called Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries. The case challenged state funding of a fundamentalist Christian program operating in an Iowa prison. The program indoctrinated inmates in evangelical Christianity and discriminated against non-Christians by extending special treatment to inmates who were willing to embrace its religious outlook. The appeals court, including O’Connor, ruled in AU’s favor later that year, holding that public funding of the program was unconstitutional.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, issued the following statement in response to the death of O’Connor:

“Americans United today joins the millions of Americans who are mourning the death of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“Justice O’Connor was a trailblazer as the first woman to sit on the high court. And while her record on church-state separation was mixed overall, she clearly understood the vital role religious freedom plays in America and how separation protects it and became increasingly supportive of church-state separation during the latter years of her tenure.

“Justice O’Connor put it succinctly in a 2005 decision when she observed: ‘Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?’

“We could use more of that spirit on the Supreme Court today. Rest in peace, Justice O’Connor.”  

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