Columbus was not perfect, Scalia acknowledged, and in fact had "grave faults."
"He participated in the slave trade-as did others in his day-and was a harsh, at times inhumane ruler of indigenous people he subjugated."
Many of the historical figures we admire had serious shortcomings, Scalia said, noting that several of the Founding Fathers owned slaves.
"[W]e know that the Founders did not fully live according to the ideals they espoused. They were sinners; they were fallen-in that respect, they were like all of us here. And they lacked the vision to fully see the implications and promise of what they wrote," he said. "But they supplied the vision and principles for generations of Americans to forge the freest nation on earth-and they had the genius to craft a Constitution that made fulfilling those ideals possible."
Heroes in the cause of civil rights embraced the founding era documents, despite the flaws of those who wrote them, Scalia said.
He noted that Frederick Douglass called the Constitution a "glorious liberty document," and Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, "When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note."
King offers the country today an example of how to embrace what was good in the American founding, while rejecting errors and "calling on America to be even more American-to be ever truer to the Founders' vision," Scalia said.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization engaging in charitable work, was founded in 1882, taking the name of Columbus, Scalia said, citing a historian who said the Knights viewed Columbus as a "hero against American nativism, a symbol providing 'social legitimacy and patriotic loyalty.'"
When Columbus Day was first celebrated nationally in 1892, it was presented by President Benjamin Harrison as a day of unity, which those from the North and South could celebrate together, the labor secretary said.
Over time, Columbus also came to be honored by immigrants – especially Italian and Irish Catholics – who faced strong discrimination in America, he added.
"[I]n the 19th century, in the face of sharp hostility associated with religion and national origin, Columbus became a powerful symbol of the claim of Italian, Irish, and other Catholic immigrants that they were fully American," he said.
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"The nation's Protestant elite proudly claimed forebears among the sons and daughters of the Revolution; Columbus was an equally proud answer that Italians and Catholics, also, had roots in the nation's founding and a claim to be fully American."
This message of diversity and inclusion offered by Columbus Day is still needed in America, Scalia said.
He recalled the 2018 confirmation hearing of Brian Buescher, a judicial nominee and member of the Knights of Columbus who was told by Senators that the Knights take "extreme positions" and was asked if he was willing to resign his membership in the organization "to avoid any appearance of bias."
He also pointed to Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett facing scrutiny for her faith and participation the charismatic Christian group People of Praise. Barrett was told by a senator at a 2017 hearing, "[T]he dogma lives loudly within you, and that's of concern."
Scalia also said the Department of Labor is working to remove regulations that require religious charitable organizations to warn the people they serve about their religious nature and refer them elsewhere if they object to it.
He added that President Donald Trump signed an order last month prohibiting race and sex scapegoating and stereotyping in federal workplace training programs. Scalia said the order will help fight training programs that tell certain employees that they are racist or morally culpable because of their race or sex.