Sotomayor Affirms Religious Liberty During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings

Federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court Aug. 6 after a 68-31 Senate vote.


Sotomayor, who becomes the 111th justice to serve on the nation’s highest court, was sworn in two days later. She replaces Justice David H. Souter, who announced his retirement in May.


The vote followed a week-long series of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in mid July.


Sotomayor, who has served as a federal judge for 17 years, has ruled on relatively few church-state cases. In light of that, Americans United asked the Judiciary Committee to question her closely on church-state matters to determine her judicial philosophy.


Committee members, however, asked Sotomayor just a few questions about religious freedom, most of them phrased in a general way.


On July 15, U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) asked Sotomayor about her views on freedom of religion, which he called “one of the basic principles of our Constitution.”


Sotomayor responded, “[I]t is a very important and central part of our democratic society that we do give freedom of religion, the practice of religion, that the Constitution restricts the state from establishing a religion, and that we have freedom of expression in speech, as well. Those freedoms are central to our Constitution.”


Sotomayor declined to elaborate further, saying that as a judge, she must decide each case according to its specific facts.


Prior to the hearings, Americans United issued a report surveying Sotomayor’s religious liberty rulings. Titled “Judging a Supreme Court Nominee: Americans United Report on Sonia Sotomayor,” the document was made available to the media and AU activists.


Religious Right groups worked hard to derail the nomination but were never able to gain much traction. On the first day of the hearings, a woman in the spectators’ section of the hearing room jumped up and started yelling about overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.


The protestor turned out to be Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the Roe case, who is now an anti-abortion activist and ally of Randall Terry, a Religious Right extremist. McCorvey and three others were removed from the hearing room and arrested.


On the day of the Senate vote, nine Republicans joined 59 Democrats in voting to confirm Sotomayor.


It might not take long to get some information on where Sotomayor stands on church-state separation. The Supreme Court already has a church-state case on its docket. The case, Salazar v. Buono, deals with the display of a cross on federal land in California. It will be argued Oct. 7.