Chancellor Emeritus of Patrick Henry College, Dr. Michael P. Farris, published a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who passed away in early December. In his article for WORLD, he honors O’Connor for her work on the Court, defending the importance of religious freedom and parental rights.
O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. She made waves in the Court’s decisions regarding issues like abortion and the free exercise of religion. O'Connor co-authored the majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, narrowing the standard to that of an “undue burden,” rather than unrestricted access and upholding Roe v. Wade. Despite this, O'Connor was in many ways a champion of religious liberty.
Farris remarks that in the controversial Employment Division v. Smith decision, he agrees more with O’Connor’s analysis in her concurrence than with Justice Antonin Scalia in his majority opinion. In this case two workers were fired for their consumption of an illegal drug in connection with a religious ritual, and Scalia upheld the constitutionality of this firing since, "legal standards applied equally to all drug usage regardless of motivation." However, Farris notes that there are "far less desirable applications" of this sort of logic. For instance, Farris remarks, many anti-discrimination laws "on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity are always written as neutral and general laws."
Conversely, while O’Connor agreed with Scalia's conclusion, she differed on reasoning and clarified that the standard of strict judicial scrutiny is the standard that should apply to cases of free exercise "before a claim of religious freedom can be denied." This reaffirmed the importance of religious freedom.
Although Farris acknowledges that O’Connor was not his "all-time favorite member of the Supreme Court," she is worth remembering and honoring. O'Connor continually, "stood fast for the importance of the free exercise of religion and the protection of parental rights as a fundamental constitutional liberty."
Patrick Henry College exists to glorify God by challenging the status quo in higher education, lifting high both faith and reason within a rigorous academic environment; thereby preserving for posterity the ideals behind the "noble experiment in ordered liberty" that is the foundation of America.