Religious Leader and Church-State Lawyer David Saperstein Praises Justice Blackmun for a Legacy of Religious Freedom
WASHINGTON, March 4, 1999--Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in his remarks on the death of former Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, today praised the legacy of religious freedom Blackmun has left the nation. Calling him "one of the [Court's] most eloquent defenders of America's core concept of fundamental liberties and freedom," Saperstein cited a series of recent cases where the late Supreme Court justice argued against government interference in religion. In Oregon v. Smith (1990), Saperstein noted, Blackmun called religious freedom "an essential element of liberty."
Rabbi Saperstein's full statement on the death of Justice Blackmun follows:
Justice Harry Blackmun was one of the most eloquent defenders of America's core concept of fundamental liberties and freedom who has ever sat on the Supreme Court. In his affirmation of the right of women to be moral decision-makers in their own lives and in his passionate defense of the rights of minorities and dissenters from majoritarian control, he added flesh and sinew to America's promise of expansive rights and freedoms for all its citizens.
While Roe will remain the decision for which he was best known, his writings on religious freedom will be of lasting importance to all Americans and particularly cherished by minority religions, including the Jewish community. He was a religiously knowledgeable person, able to quote Scripture from memory, who in his personal and professional life exhibited great sensitivity to the religious practices and sensibilities of those around him. His strong support for a wall keeping government from interfering with religion was a reflection of his enormous respect for religion and his commitment to protecting the religious freedom of all Americans.
When, for example, his fellow justices, in his view, trivialized the religious significance of the crèche, by arguing it could be stripped of its religious meaning when it was surrounded by reindeer, Santa Claus and Christmas lights, Justice Blackmun dissented: "Surely this is a misuse of a sacred symbol." ( Lynch v. Donnelly , 1984) His opinion for the Court in County of Allegheny v. ACLU of Greater Pittsburgh (1989), affirmed that religious symbols could not stand alone in a way that conveyed government support or endorsement. When his fellow justices gutted First Amendment protections of religious freedom in Oregon v. Smith (1990), Justice Blackmun admonished them: "I do not believe the Founders thought their dearly bought freedom from religious persecution a 'luxury,' but an essential element of liberty - and they could not have thought religious intolerance 'unavoidable,' for they drafted the Religion Clauses precisely in order to avoid that intolerance."
Justice Blackmun's legacy will live long in the religious freedoms that Americans cherish so deeply and enjoy so expansively. We extend our condolences to family and friends, and rededicate ourselves to protecting the freedom he so powerfully championed.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1,800 Reform rabbis in 875 congregations throughout North America.