Sotomayor And Religious Liberty: Court Nominee Says It's Central To The Constitution

As it turns out, we didn't have to wait too long for a question assessing Judge Sonia Sotomayor's thoughts on religious liberty.

Yesterday afternoon, as the Senate confirmation hearings continued, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) asked Sotomayor her views on freedom of religion, which he called "one of the basic principles of our Constitution."

Cardin brought up one of Supreme Court nominee's decisions, Ford v. McGinnis, in which she ruled that a prison violated a Muslim inmate's rights when officials denied him access to religious meals marking the end of Ramadan.

After citing this case, Cardin asked: "Please share with us your philosophy as to -- maybe it's a wrong use of terms -- but the importance of that provision in the Constitution and how you would go about dealing with cases that could affect that fundamental right in 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 -- the state from establishing a religion, and that we have freedom of expression in speech, as well.

"Those freedoms are central to our Constitution," she continued.   "The Ford case, as others that I had rendered in this area, recognize the importance of that in terms of one's consideration of actions that are being taken to restrict it in a particular circumstance."

But Sotomayor stopped short of elaborating further. She said, as a judge, each case depends on the facts, so making any further statement would be difficult to do.

I guess that's a start, but it's not much for us to go on. We are certainly pleased to hear she is a fan of the First Amendment and recognizes the freedoms it provides are fundamental rights. But that is something we would hope, and expect, to hear from anyone sitting where Sotomayor is today.

But we want to know more. What is her general philosophy about government aid to religious institutions? What is her understanding of the court precedents regarding religious displays on public land? What about the right of a taxpayer to sue when he or she does not want public funds to support religious beliefs?

We know Sotomayor will not – and should not – say how she's going to rule on issues that will land at the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming years, but she can give us some guidance on her approach to church-state relations.

I wish someone would just ask this: "Thomas Jefferson said the American people through the First Amendment have built a wall of separation between church and state. Do you agree?"

As the hearing continues, it looks like we will have to keep waiting for our answers.

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