How Are Atheists Reacting to SCOTUS Nominee Sonia Sotomayor? May 26, 2009

How Are Atheists Reacting to SCOTUS Nominee Sonia Sotomayor?

President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor hasn’t issued many rulings on church/state separation cases. Not major ones, anyway. Howard Friedman has a roundup of her opinions on religion-related cases at Religion Clause.

This puts atheist and secular church/state watchdog groups in a tough position: Should they support her or issue no statement at all?

Various groups have been dealing with this in different ways.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State says we need to examine her closely:

Research by Americans United has turned up only a few cases by Sotomayor that touch on the separation of church and state. [Executive Director Barry] Lynn said AU’s research on the nominee is ongoing and will include examination of other public statements beyond court rulings.

“Americans United looks forward to working with the Judiciary Committee to draft a series of questions for Judge Sotomayor,” said Lynn. “We hope the coming weeks shed more light on her views on important religious liberty issues.”

The Center for Inquiry says they offer “Cautious Support” for Sotomayor:

Said [chairman and founder Paul] Kurtz, “While we support her nomination and recognize her distinguished record, we are concerned that her views on the separation of church and state are unclear. We are urging for due diligence.” Kurtz says that it is imperative that the president’s choice to replace Souter be as sympathetic to religious liberty as Souter himself was. “He was a crucial member of the bare five to four majority that, by a thread, has preserved the essence of government neutrality in matters of religion.”

One intriguing note is that, if Sotomayor is confirmed, we will have six Catholics on the Supreme Court. (Justices Breyer and Ginsburg are both Jewish while Justice Stevens is a Protestant.)

Should it matter that there is no non-religious representation on the court? (Hopefully, their decisions will make that distinction irrelevant.)

It may not matter at all since she’s not the Bill-Donohue-crazy sort of Catholic. According to an administration official, “Judge Sotomayor was raised as a Catholic and attends church for family celebrations and other important events.”

Which may be another way of saying she is a cultural Catholic, but not a full blown, Pope-adoring type. She’s also divorced and without child, which doesn’t exactly make her a cookie-cutter-Catholic.

When Justice Sam Alito was going through his confirmation process, I met with a staffer for Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). (This was courtesy of the Secular Coalition for America.)

I asked the staffer if the senator was going to probe into Alito’s views on church/state issues. The staffer didn’t hesitate. He said that Durbin was (not surprisingly) a very strong advocate for church/state separation. He went on to cite questions Durbin had asked of John Roberts during his confirmation hearings that all of us wanted answered.

Durbin went on to vote “No” to Alito.

He is still a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, so I have high hopes that he will ask similarly tough questions of Sotomayor to ascertain how she may think about the role of religion in the public sphere.

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  • littlejohn

    I agree that her divorce and childlessness (suggestive of birth control) suggests she’s not really into Catholic dogma. Also, the fact that she was near the top of her class at Princeton and edited the law review at Yale suggests she is an intellectual. Bill Buckley aside, intellectuals are rarely very religious. I’m rather optimistic.

  • Miko

    This puts atheist and secular church/state watchdog groups in a tough position: Should they support her or issue no statement at all?

    This ignores the third possibility of our opposing her nomination. I don’t know of any reason why we should; I just want to point out that the option logically exists.

    Church/state issues are tricky because they don’t fit the standard modern-Liberal (pro-state, anti-individual) vs. modern-Conservative (pro-plutocracy, anti-individual) divide of the Court. Since the Liberal end is also more secular, they’re liable to overlook their more statist bias to defend religious liberty. Since the Conservative end is anti-individualistic predominantly as a means to inflict “morality” on us, they’re liable to overlook their general distrust of the state in order to support governmental religious displays (in much the same sense that they’re willing to overlook this distrust when it comes to government-supplied corporate welfare).

    However, we should remember that all liberty is essentially anti-state, anti-plutocracy, and pro-individual, so counting on either of these factions to uphold our liberties (as a deontological principle) is a dangerous strategy at best; see the Raich case as a poignant example of how the court’s hyper-statist version of “liberalism” differs from the public conception of it.

    Due to the historical deviation from general principle on the issue, we’re probably better off with as liberal a justice as possible on church/state. However, Obama’s recent attempts to move U.S. economic policy in a more fascist direction (in the sense of a strong partnership between the state and big business, not in the sense of “I don’t know what this word means so I use it to condemn whatever I dislike”) may challenge the conventional wisdom, as the Big Government/Big Business partnership appeals to both the liberal pro-statist and conservative pro-plutocracy mindsets. This fusion could throw the old distinctions out the window (and doubtlessly create new ones along lines hard to predict in advance) and lead to some hairy situations (e.g., just as the executive-legislative distinction was used to crush church/state concerns in Hein v. FFRF, it’s plausible that a state-corporate distinction could become significant in the future, especially in response to further neoliberal-style monopoly privatization of state functions).

  • Miko

    I agree that her divorce and childlessness (suggestive of birth control) suggests she’s not really into Catholic dogma.

    True, but if her religion is a significant factor in her qualification (personally, I don’t think it is) then an even better way of finding someone “not really into Catholic dogma” would be to choose a non-Catholic, so I have to see this point as irrelevant at best.

  • Epistaxis

    Should it matter that there is no non-religious representation on the court?

    Absolutely not. The Supreme Court is neither representative nor a democracy. The justices’ personal views, on both religion and politics, should have no bearing on their decisions of legality and constitutionality. If they do let their ideology infect their jurisprudence, then they shouldn’t be appointed, regardless of whether or not I agree with them.

  • debaser71

    Why the White House Will Promote Sotomayor’s Religious Liberty Record …

    the White House is already spotlighting Sotomayor’s record on religious liberty cases, where her rulings are likely to please religious conservatives….

    It’s the kind of church-state separation opinion—protecting the church from the state, as opposed to the other way around—that will please religious conservatives…

    I am dissappointed but not surprised at all. This is exactly what I feared most about Obama. That when it came time to nominate judges he’d nominate ones that favor religion.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    I’m not too concerned with her religious leanings. Rather, I’m absolutely fearful about her making a statement this like (coupled with her decision in the Ricci New Haven Firefighters Case):

    “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Should it matter that there is no non-religious representation on the court?

    In a perfect world, of course it shouldn’t matter. But when one portion of the population has been repeatedly given short shrift, they justifiably feel that the world is not perfect, and that having some representation on the court would help to address a pattern of lack of concern for their interest. I will forego the examples, because we probably all know them.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Hey, The Unbrainwashed, I’d like to congratulate you on cherry-picking a quote out of context by Sotomayer and using it in the fine tradition of Fox News to make her look bad. Now, if you have any interest in what she actually said, in full context, I invite you to read it here.

  • mike

    When my dad told me she was up for the nomination I thought he was joking, lol. Not that she’s unqualified, just was surprised. Been a while since I’d seen her, she was sentencing on a medial insurance scam case at the time. I don’t think her religious upbringing will be a big problem, but next time I see her I’ll ask, lol.

  • I actually just blogged on this. I detailed her record on Church/State issues but have not made up my mind about her yet. Her record is a bit mixed. If anyone is interested, check out my blog at Sorry to blog dick, but this is a pretty important issue and I did a little research on it because I couldn’t find one site that listed a detailed record on these things.

  • mike

    To be honest I’m more concerned about her history of tech rulings…

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