Justice Stevens' Record of Upholding Secular Principles Lauded by Secular Coalition for America

After decades of noble service on the United States Supreme Court, with an unflinching respect for America's secular foundations, the Secular Coalition for America honors the legacy of Justice John Paul Stevens on the announcement of his retirement today.

"Justice Stevens, more than any other living American, has stood strong for the principles that James Madison, the father of the Constitution, intended for the separation of church and state," said Sean Faircloth, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. "He has been a steadfast champion for the rights of Secular Americans to opt out of religion and to be free of religious coercion by government institutions. He will be difficult to replace, and we hope that President Obama will keep Justice Stevens' example in mind when choosing his replacement."

In the landmark City of Boerne v. Flores (1985), deciding the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Justice Stevens wisely voted to strike the law down for local and state applicability, calling it "governmental preference for religion, as opposed to irreligion," noting that the special protections it granted to religious institutions and organizations unjustly did not apply to the secular or nontheistic. Indeed, Justice Stevens did not shrink from highlighting nontheists as a group that would suffer under the law, noting, "The statute has provided the Church with a legal weapon that no atheist or agnostic can obtain."

In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), Justice Stevens clarified the line of church-state demarcation, stating that opening prayers at a public school football game violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Wrote Stevens, "It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise." Once again, Justice Stevens asserted the rights of the nonreligious to be free of such coercion, writing in his opinion that such school-sanctioned public prayer events can seem to nonbelievers or those of differing faiths that the practice is intended to marshal the power of the state to impose a particular religion.
Justice Stevens also stood against the subsidizing of religious institutions through taxpayer-funded school vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), noting that parents with children in untenable educational circumstances may feel compelled to "accept religious indoctrination [of their children] that they otherwise would have avoided."

These particular cases serve as only a small sampling of Justice Stevens' wisdom at the bench. The Secular Coalition for America thanks him for his work on behalf of the American people, particularly the tens of millions of Secular Americans who have benefited from his tenure.

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For Immediate Release: April 9, 2010
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, 202-299-1091 / paul(at)secular.org

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