Sotomayor as the Supreme Court's 6th Catholic

Should her faith matter in sizing up Sonia Sotomayor?

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Sonia Sotomayor's Roman Catholicism hasn't received much attention in the first-day stories about her nomination to the Supreme Court, but religion reporters have taken note, pointing out that she'd provide the sixth Catholic vote on a nine-person court.

The White House isn't pushing Sotomayor as a Catholic nominee, at least not in the way George W. Bush's White House pushed current Chief Justice John Roberts as a committed Catholic (to reassure social conservatives worried about his abortion position) and failed nominee Harriet Miers as a Bible-believing evangelical (ditto).

Obama did mention Sotomayor's Catholic school upbringing in introducing her yesterday. And a White House aide told Beliefnet's Steve Waldman that "Judge Sotomayor was raised as a Catholic and attends church for family celebrations and other important events."

Still, the White House isn't actively selling her as a Catholic nominee, as far as I know.

So does Sotomayor's Catholicism matter? Or is it only important when it comes to sizing up conservative Catholic high court nominees, a double standard that the Catholic League's Bill Donohue says the political left and the news media are applying?

I don't know if Sotomayor's Catholicism will influence her rulings. I haven't seen reports of it happening in her federal court opinions to date, though Sotomayor has been sympathetic to abortion-rights opponents and to plaintiffs alleging violations of their religious liberties.

But Sotomayor's Catholicism matters for two political reasons:

1. It breaks the Republican Party's recent monopoly on Catholic nominees. Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan nominated every Catholic currently on the Supreme Court: Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito. The last Democratic president to nominate a Catholic to the Supreme Court was FDR.

Republicans' embrace of conservative Catholic figures, including on the Supreme Court, helps explain why the GOP has been able to make big inroads among Catholics, traditionally a Democratic constituency. Bush went so far as to win the Catholic vote against Catholic Democratic nominee John Kerry.

2. Even if Sotomayor isn't being sold as a Catholic nominee, her Catholicism, especially her Catholic school experience, gives her political advantages in the nomination process. Combined with her limited but moderate record on abortion and her strong record on religious liberty, it makes her palatable to culturally moderate Americans. It also makes it impossible for conservative religious groups to caricature her as a godless lefty.

There's been some speculation that conservative Catholics will attack Sotomayor for being insufficiently Catholic, but I'm skeptical. As Mark Silk notes, Supreme Court nominees are not subject to the same religious tests (the political, not constitutional, kind) as presidential candidates.

And it was religious conservatives who built an entire campaign alleging that liberals took a "Catholics Need Not Apply" position toward John Roberts during his 2005 nomination hearings. So I'm guessing the same crowd will be loath to go after Sotomayor on the basis of her Catholicism, even if it's alleging that she's not Catholic enough.

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