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How Catholic is Sonia Sotomayor?

6 years ago
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The answer is: Despite the media attention speculating on the impact of "another Catholic" on the Supreme Court, we really don't know.

But Barack Obama's first nominee to the Supreme Court has left fewer faith footprints in her public persona than anybody who has made it to the political big leagues in a long time.

Why does this matter? Clearly, there is not and should not be a religious test for Supreme Court justice. But it is fair game, I think, to consider the moral and ethical underpinnings of a nominee. What shaped her philosophy? What internal tools will she use to make her decisions?

For many people, religion is one of the tools they use to inform how they approach matters of public policy. Famously, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have each explained how their understanding of their respective faiths helped inform their approaches to governance.

So what about Sonia Sotomayor? Can we find religious influences in her past? And by the way, I am in no way reflecting on whether she is "good" or "not good" in her approach to religion. That's between her and the Great Perhaps. I'm only searching for clues about whether her faith, as she understands it, is relevant to her approach to justice.

She's been around for long enough to have been the subject of several big newspaper profiles. I went looking for any hint of the role that her religion – any religion – played in shaping her.

One thing we know about her is that she attended Catholic schools as a kid. But Catholic schools are famously the way that many inner city parents reached for the best education for their children – no matter what their personal theology.

And education – not religious training – is what Sotomayor talked about to Newsday back in 1992. Her mother, she said, sent both her children to Catholic schools despite having to pay tuition.

"For my mother, as a single parent, education was paramount. We did without a lot of other things, clothing in particular," Sonia recalls. "When you have a parent for whom education is a number one priority, it has an impact, certainly on my brother and I."

The profile makes no other mention of religion.

(I'll ask parenthetically whether Newsday would have referred to a man facing Senate confirmation to be a federal judge by his first name.)

The New York Times also did a profile in 1992 and got an interview. And once again, the profile makes no reference to religion, even in passing. The reporter did record this exchange:

So what kind of music do you like?

"Soft rock,'' the centrist replied.

In 1997, Newsday did another profile and noted one religion-themed case that the judge had decided.

In 1994, Sotomayor allowed two state prison inmates to wear multicolored bead necklaces under their clothing. The inmates said wearing the beads was essential to their religious faith, Santeria. Prison officials argued that the beads were gang symbols that provoked fights.

Sotomayor, who attended Catholic schools as a child, saw the issue in terms of religious freedom. After chastening officials for favoring "traditional" religions like Catholicism over "nontraditional" religions like Santeria, she ruled that such distinctions were "intolerable."

What else to we know that may be relevant? She's divorced, which goes against strict Catholic teaching.

Steven Waldman, over on his Beleifnet blog, squeezed one sentence out of White House officials on the topic of Sotomayor's faith:

"Judge Sotomayor was raised as a Catholic and attends church for family celebrations and other important events."

And the Catholic News Service has this:

Jesuit Father Joseph O'Hare, the retired president of Fordham University who served with Sotomayor on a New York City campaign finance review council, said when he knew her beginning in the late 1980s she was indeed a practicing Catholic.

Whatever that means.

All of which adds up to: Not much. Not enough for discussions about "another Catholic on the Supreme Court" to make much sense.

After all, when she's been asked who inspired her to go into the law, she famously cites Perry Mason, not Saint Augustine.
Filed Under: Faith 'n Values

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