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.