Sorting Out Sotomayor: Church-State Experts Wait For Answers, While The Southern Baptists Plunge Ahead

As you may have noticed, Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Senate confirmation hearings continue today.

We've heard a lot of griping about her "wise Latina" remark and her decision in the Ricci case, as well as witnessed outbursts from anti-abortionist protestors.

But to our knowledge, we have yet to hear anyone ask her about her views on church and state issues.

We are eagerly waiting, though, because based on our research, there's not much that clues us in to how she will answer.   As the Religion News Service (RNS) summed it up today, "Sotomayor's past decisions indicate she is hard to pigeonhole."

The RNS article is a compilation of opinions from church-state experts (including Americans United's Barry W. Lynn) who generally agree that we have little idea of Sotomayor's views on the First Amendment's religion clauses.   Most of the time, her decisions show she takes free exercise of religion very seriously, but her views on "establishment" issues are not so clear.

"She's recognized explicitly that the plaintiffs' beliefs, even if unfamiliar, deserve First Amendment protection from overly broad rules that burden the practice of non-mainstream religion," K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, wrote in an analysis of Sotomayor's decision involving two New York inmates who wanted to wear beads related to their Santeria faith.

Secular Coalition for America spokesman Jesse Galef, said his group sent questions to the Senate Judiciary Committee, including an inquiry about a case in which Sotomayor rejected a city's resolution that prevented a rabbi from placing a menorah in a park during Hanukkah.

"She did say that she understands the city's concerns that it could be taken as their speech," Galef said, hopeful that if the facts were different, she would not be in support of religious displays on public land.

The RNS report also points out Sotomayor's confirmation is especially important to civil liberties activists because Justice David Souter, whom she would replace, was a big proponent of church-state separation.

"Justice Souter turned out to be a giant in church-state understanding, a person who really understood that government had no business resolving religious disputes or in any way promoting religious doctrine or ideas," said AU's Lynn.

Americans United issued a report earlier this week listing relevant Sotomayor decisions. After careful examination, we took a neutral stance on her appointment. It's the right thing to do considering we have little to go on.

But that doesn't seem to be the case for everyone. Southern Baptist Convention lobbyist Richard Land wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday blasting Sotomayor. Land, head of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee, raised a lot of issues but didn't mention anything at all about her views on religious liberty.

"We are deeply troubled by many aspects of Judge Sotomayor's record," he wrote. "While Judge Sotomayor has ruled favorably on abortion-related cases at times, we note that her rulings on race-related issues reveal a much more ideologically rigid attitude toward race."

Land also criticized her alleged "lack of respect for private property rights" and charged that she is "out of the mainstream of the American public and too often of the very Court for which she is being considered." He concluded, "We urge you to do all you can to bring out all the facts about Judge Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings, and if these troubling issues remain, to vote against her confirmation."

I guess the "religious liberty" component of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is not all that important. Could it be that this is just one more example of the deeply partisan character of the denomination's leadership? Sotomayor was picked by President Barack Obama, so the SBC's leaders are against her.

As AU's Lynn said in his Beliefnet blog, we hope senators will soon ask some very pertinent questions that will tell us where Sotomayor stands on church-state concerns, and more importantly, if she can fill Souter's big shoes.

We'll be waiting.