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A FEW VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS RAISE HACKLES OF THE UNRELIGIOUS

SUPREME COURT JUSTICE Antonin Scalia stirred up a media dust-up of sorts over remarks he made last month to a prayer breakfast in Jackson, Miss., sponsored by a Baptist church.

The jurist, who happens to be a Roman Catholic, expressed to the assembled Baptists and others his belief that religion is nothing to be ashamed of."We must pray for the courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world," he said.

His speech was prescient, as critics opined that Scalia's remarks were somehow inappropriate. The Washington Post, for instance, took pains to point out that it was "out of the ordinary" for a U.S. Supreme Court justice to speak publicly on "a sensitive topic such as religion." A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State went further, claiming that Scalia's talk "undermines public confidence in his objectivity."

Horrors. In a country where, surveys show, as many as 90 percent of that populace has a strong belief in God, is it any wonder that a member of the Supreme Court might be a believer as well?

As U.S. News & World Report noted, Scalia's remarks coincided with those given by President Clinton at a memorial service for those Americans killed along with Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in a plane crash in Croatia.

At a solemn ceremony before flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the president, who happens to be a Baptist, "reminded the mourners that Easter `marks the passage from loss and despair to hope and redemption,' that `life is . . . eternal,' and that those who died on a Croatian hillside `are surely at home with God,' " U.S. News says.

But during the same week, the Los Angeles Times decided to pull the B.C. comic strip from its pages because it carried an unabashed Easter message. Public outrage eventually forced the paper to reconsider, and the editors decided to run the strip on the religion page.

What's going on here? Nothing unusual, to be sure. Religion, and its proponents, are regularly derided in the popular media. If believers are not portrayed as simple-minded yahoos from the right, they are depicted as sinister authoritarians bent on all manner of perverse acts.

But don't take my word for it. As the Virginia-based Media Research Center reports in its third-annual "Faith in a Box" survey, when religion is not simply being ignored on television, "it is frequently ridiculed or disparaged. Television's treatment of religion doesn't reflect reality; it reverses it."

If the media were wondering why they are held in such low regard, the general lack of respect and mean-spirited disdain shown for the public's values and beliefs are two damnable reasons.