Obama’s Pick on Religious Liberty

Posted on May 26, 2009 In Blog

President Obama, this morning, nominated Judge Sonya Sotomayor for the US Supreme Court. An early survey of her opinions on religious liberty issues is very encouraging:


1. Notable examples include:

Flamer v. City of White Plains (1993). This case involved a suit by a rabbi who had sought permission to display a menorah in a city park, but was denied permission in light of a city council resolution barring fixed outdoor displays of religious or political symbols in parks. The rabbi’s suit challenged the resolution as unconstitutional. Judge Sotomayor (then on the district court) agreed and struck down the resolution as a content-based regulation of speech that discriminated against religious speech.

Campos v. Coughlin (1994). In this case, prison inmates asserted a free exercise right to wear multiple strands of beads under their clothes, as part of their practice of the Santeria religion. Judge Sotomayor upheld their claim.

Ford v. McGinnis (2003). This case involved a suit by a Muslim prison inmate against state correctional officials who refused to let him participate in an Islamic religious feast. The district judge rejected the inmate’s claim, relying on testimony by the religious authorities working in the prison that the prisoner’s beliefs about the timing and significance of the feast did not comport with Islam’s actual requirements. The Second Circuit reversed in a panel opinion by Judge Sotomayor which explained that the key question was not the objective reasonableness of the prisoner’s asserted religious belief but whether the prisoner sincerely held the belief. Going further, Judge Sotomayor stressed that courts must be wary of evaluating claims about the content of particular religions or the importance of certain religious rites. “[C]ourts have not aptitude,” she wrote, “to pass upon the question of whether particular religious beliefs are wrong or right.”

2. Judge Sotomayor has also recognized the importance, under the Establishment Clause, of protecting religion from state interference. For example:

Hankins v. Lyght (2006). In this case, a 70 year-old Methodist minister brought an age discrimination claim against the Methodist Church after he was fired pursuant to the church’s mandatory retirement rules. Judge Sotomayor dissented from the panel majority’s decision to send the case back to the district court for further analysis under two different statutes. Instead, she took the position that the federal age discrimination in employment statute simply did not apply in this context, because applying it would entail undue intrusion into religious matters. She wrote: “Federal court entanglement in matters as fundamental as a religious institution’s selection or dismissal of its spiritual leaders risks an unconstitutional ‘trespass[] on the most spiritually intimate grounds of a religious community’s existence.” Given those concerns, she concluded that the federal statute was best read “not [to] apply to employment suits brought against religious institutions by their spiritual leaders.”

For more links and information about Judge Sotomayor’s record in this arena – please click here.