WASHINGTON (RNS) Jordan and Julie Siverd admired Justice Antonin Scalia so much they drove 21 hours from Louisiana to pay their last respects.
With temperatures just above freezing, they were among the first of thousands forming the line on Friday (Feb. 19) that wrapped around the block of the Supreme Court.
The Siverds’ 5-year-old son Jacob snuggled inside his father’s coat as the pallbearers carried the justice’s flag-draped casket up the court steps and his parents talked about Scalia as a giant among jurists.
“The biblical and the constitutional owe a lot of debt to Scalia,” said Julie Siverd, a Presbyterian who attended a Christian seminary. Her husband, an attorney, added that the conservative Roman Catholic justice separated his legal opinions from his religious convictions.
“I don’t think he felt he was pursuing any agenda other than the one that the people had written into the Constitution,” Jordan Siverd said.
Scalia’s body was discovered last Saturday at a luxury ranch in Texas where he went to hunt with friends. He served nearly 30 years on the court, arguing for a strict interpretation of the Constitution reflective of its framers’ intentions, a legal philosophy known as “originalism.”
Though accused by liberal critics of bringing his conservative approach to Catholicism to bear in his decisions — in his opinions against gay rights, for example — Scalia did sometimes sign on to rulings at odds with Catholic teachings. His legal opinions in support of the death penalty, for example, contravened Catholicism’s opposition to capital punishment.
On Friday, Scalia’s casket was carried through lines of former Supreme Court clerks in black suits, and met atop the Supreme Court steps by the eight surviving justices. Scalia’s widow Maureen was there with others in the Scalia family, including his son Paul Scalia, a Roman Catholic priest who said a prayer over the body.
After a private ceremony for the family and justices, ordinary citizens were allowed in to spend a few moments near the casket of the justice.
Ryan Shymansky, a Georgetown University government major and a Catholic, admired Scalia for being “a man of deep faith, deep conviction.
“But his jurisprudence was absolutely grounded in the Constitution and I don’t think anybody could ever argue that his Catholicism had any undue influence on what his positions were,” said Shymansky, 22, who is heading to law school in the fall.
Standing a short distance from Shymansky, a retired Orthodox Jewish couple from Columbia, Md., said they appreciated Scalia’s strong defense of religious freedom. A group of interns held a handmade sign, “Antonin Scalia is a hero.”
And then there were those who didn’t necessarily admire Scalia’s opinions — which also included a staunch opposition to affirmative action and support for gun rights — but came anyway.
“I don’t necessarily agree with his decisions,” said Marion Spann, a retired social studies teacher from Landover, Md. “He was a Supreme Court justice, and I respect the position.”
Spann found himself standing in line next to another retired teacher, Rosalind Yee from Annapolis, Md., who spoke of her deep respect for Scalia’s ultra-conservatism and staunch religious devotion.
“I admired the man,” said Yee, a Catholic. “He stuck to his guns.”
The last time a Supreme Court justice’s body lay in repose at the court was in 2005, after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. As with Rehnquist’s and previous justices’ coffins, Scalia’s was placed on the Lincoln catafalque, a trapezoidal wooden platform constructed for President Abraham Lincoln, whose coffin rested on it in the U.S. Capitol when Lincoln’s body lay in state three days in April 1865.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were also expected to pay their respects to Scalia in the Supreme Court’s Great Hall Friday.
Scalia’s funeral will be held on Saturday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic Church in the United States. The ornate Romanesque structure is 3.5 miles from the Supreme Court, adjacent to the Catholic University of America.
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, both Catholics, will represent the White House at the funeral.
(Lauren Markoe is a national reporter for RNS)