Fuss over Alito’s lighthearted comment overshadowed his important points

Written by William C. Duncan

September 8, 2022

Justice Samuel Alito’s speech in Rome at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit has received a lot of media attention.

This is because of an aside in which Alito noted that he was the author of a recent Supreme Court opinion that had come in for criticism from the heads of state of a number of nations: “I’ve had a few second thoughts over the last few weeks since I had the honor this term of writing I think the only Supreme Court decision in the history of that institution that has been lambasted by a whole string of foreign leaders who felt perfectly fine commenting on American law.”

He mentioned a few of the leaders who had made such comments, including Prince Harry, who mentioned the decision in a speech before the United Nations.

Much of the commentary on this passage was disproportionate to Alito’s lighthearted comments. 

The overheated attention to a teasing passage in the introduction to the speech has, unfortunately, overshadowed some important points Alito made about religious freedom and how it can be better protected. 

Alito pointed out the need “to convince people who are not religious that religious liberty is worth special protection. That will not be easy to do.”

He suggested that a possible resource in making this case is the good that comes to nations that do provide robust religious freedom protections, including the charitable work carried out by religious organizations and the social causes championed by people of faith.

Alito said:

If religious liberty is protected, religious leaders and other men and women of faith will be able to speak out on social issues. People with deep religious convictions may be less likely to succumb to dominating ideologies or trends, and more likely to act in accordance with what they see as true and right. Civil society can count on them as engines of reform.

He also observed, “Religious liberty and other fundamental rights tend to go together.” This assertion is backed up by research that finds, for instance, that support for LGBT rights tends to be higher in nations with strong legal protections for religious freedom.

These are important observations. Whether or not one agrees with tenets of a particular faith, there is a large body of evidence that people of faith and religious organizations make crucial contributions to the common good. Religiously motivated charity – whether it’s emergency relief or care for the homeless or assistance to individuals out of work – is an indispensable part of the social safety net. 

Additionally, the efforts of religious citizens to secure rights like free speech have increased the scope of freedom for all citizens. A Jehovah’s Witness family seeking to act on their faith led to a foundational Supreme Court decision that the state cannot force individuals to endorse government speech with which they disagree.

Indeed, the effort to secure religious freedom was among the motivations that led to the creation of the United States and the eventual enshrining of many of the rights we consider essential in the text of our Constitution.

Alito recognized that the subject of religion is controversial to a degree that is novel. But the understanding he calls for could go a long way toward fostering appreciation for its role in society and for the contributions it makes to the religious and nonreligious alike.

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