Saturday, February 13, 2016

Justice Scalia Dies; Author of Smith Decision

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died today at age 79. The New York Times eulogized him as a justice whose "transformative legal theories, vivid writing and outsize personality made him a leader of a conservative intellectual renaissance."  In the area of First Amendment religious freedom decisions, Justice Scalia will be particularly remembered as the author of the majority  opinion in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) which rejected use of the "compelling interest" test to validate neutral regulations of general applicability that burden religious practices.  He argued:
Precisely because "we are a cosmopolitan nation made up of people of almost every conceivable religious preference," ... and precisely because we value and protect that religious divergence, we cannot afford the luxury of deeming presumptively invalid, as applied to the religious objector, every regulation of conduct that does not protect an interest of the highest order. The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind 
It was the reaction to this decision that led Congress, in  a nearly unanimous vote, to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.