Back in 2007, Barack Obama said that if he got the chance to make a Supreme Court appointment, one of his criteria for a justice would be a capacity for "empathy." Conservatives were predictably outraged. But last week, we got to see what it looks like when a justice is unable to view the world from another's perspective.
[Justice Antonin Scalia ] seemed positively gobsmacked that American Civil Liberties Union attorney Peter Eliasberg would argue that a giant cross is a -- get this -- a Christian symbol....
Scalia apparently thinks that the cross is some kind of universal symbol of death, not a Christian one. "The cross doesn't honor non-Christians who fought in the war?" he asked the ACLU lawyer incredulously. Eliasberg explained that "a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity," to which Scalia shot back, "It's erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. It's the -- the cross is the -- is the most common symbol of -- of -- of the resting place of the dead, and it doesn't seem to me -- what would you have them erect? A cross -- some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Moslem half moon and star?"
Eliasberg replied, "The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew." This was greeted with laughter in the courtroom, which no doubt made Scalia's blood boil.
Something tells me those who share Scalia's perspective would feel a little differently about questions like the one raised by the Mojave case if they were outnumbered. For example, healthy majorities of the public have always supported prayer in public schools. But imagine that your typical advocate of school prayer happened to move to, say, Dearborn, Michigan, home of the densest concentration of Muslims in the country (according to the 2000 census, 30 percent of Dearborn residents were of Arab descent; the number is probably higher by now). Then imagine that at the local public elementary school, parents suggested starting each day with a passage from the Koran read over the P.A. system. Our defender of classroom prayer would probably discover a newfound affection for the separation of church and state.
Coming to that realization before you become a minority yourself requires an ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes [-- empathy]. It's seldom an easy thing to do. But some people who never thought they'd have to do so will get the chance before long.