Did Supreme Court Justices boycott Pope Francis?

Three of the Supreme Court’s justices missed Pope Francis’ history-making speech to Congress on Thursday. If they turned down the invite because of politics or faith, they weren't alone.  

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP
Supreme Court justices applaud as Pope Francis arrives on Capitol Hill to address Congress last Thursday. Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas were absent.

It’s been almost impossible to escape news of Pope Francis this week: the rockstar pontiff, whose first US trip threatened to overshadow even that of Chinese President Xi Jinping, drew massive crowds from Washington to Philadelphia, where one million Catholics joined him for Mass on Sunday.

But three Supreme Court justices did their best to avoid the pope’s limelight – and, perhaps, his message – creating their own modest media storm in the process.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas were all conspicuously absent from the Court’s front-row seats at Francis’ speech to Congress on Thursday, the first time a leader of the Catholic Church has ever addressed both houses.

It’s not unprecedented for a Justice to miss such a high-profile event. For almost 20 years, Justice Scalia has seemed to enjoy skipping the State of the Union, which he’s called “a childish spectacle” to which he doesn’t want to “lend dignity.”

At times, the US president’s annual address can have the feel of a sports match, with both parties alternately leaping to their feet to applaud particular points. Such partisanship puts Supreme Court justices in a “very uncomfortable” position, according to Justice Thomas, who also stopped attending some years ago. “There’s a lot that you don’t hear on TV – the catcalls, the whooping and hollering and under-the-breath comments,” he told Florida students in 2010.

Many politicians, and perhaps the Justices, anticipated that respect for the pope would not stop his speech from turning into a similarly politicized spectacle. Despite his global star power, Francis’ positions on issues such as income equality, immigration, and environmental change have irked some conservatives who say that he’s overstepping his bounds, or object to what they consider his liberal bent. For Catholics, this leaves them in the tricky position of opposing the head of their church.

Leading up to Francis’ speech, Catholic House Rep. Paul Gosar (R) of Arizona lambasted the pope’s political positions in an op-ed called “Why I Am Boycotting Pope Francis’ Address to Congress.”

In his letter, Representative Gosar claims Earth “has been changing since first created in Genesis,” rendering Francis’ environmental focus, which Gosar describes as “wrapped [in] false science and ideology,” a waste of time. Climate change is a “fool’s errand,” he says, compared to the pressing need to “change the climate of slaughter in the Middle East.”

Although not confirmed, there's been speculation that Scalia, Thomas and Alito may have also elected to skip the speech on account of political differences. All are Catholic, although so are their fellow Justices John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, and Sonia Sotomayor, who were there to listen alongside the remaining three Justices. But Scalia, in particular, has made headlines for his support of the death penalty, a practice the pope opposes in no uncertain terms.

Those who did attend the Congressional speech found themselves part of Francis’ “nifty maneuver,” in the words of journalist Amy Sullivan:

The pope got the entire audience to stand up when he declared that “the golden rule …reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

But while the pope was undeniably referring, among other things, to the very beginning of life, his next sentence took many in the crowd by surprise. “This conviction has led me,” he continued, “to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity.”

For many Republicans, however, Francis’ support for environmental stewardship is the biggest hurdle to accepting his teachings. Yet Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio seemed to sum up many Americans’ feelings about the speech when he said, praising Francis’ focus on poverty, “He’s got some other positions that are a bit more controversial. But, it’s the pope!” 

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