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Given that there is much discussion of "empathy" and "the Wise Latina" remarks regarding Supreme court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, I'd like to comment on why I think that it is important to have a judge who will rule on the side of what is right, under our Constitution, even when her ruling may not be understood by people from outside of her culture.

Several news agencies reported recently about a 1994 ruling by Sotomayor in Campos v. Coughlin.  

The CNS news headline read:
Sotomayor Overturned Prison Regulations to Allow Santeria-Practicing Convicts to Wear Beads

( – Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, told the State of New York in 1994 that it must allow prison inmates who practice Santeria to wear multi-colored beads.  Santeria is a sect that combines African religious traditions with elements drawn from Roman Catholicism.

In the case of Campos v. Coughlin , Sotomayor told state prison officials that their fear of a growing gang movement within the prison was less important than the right of Santeria faithful to wear religious beads.

Then a Southern District of New York federal judge, Sotomayor claimed in Campos v. Coughlin that the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) had engaged in what she called an "erroneous deprivation" of the rights of Santeria followers Tony Campos and Alex Lance, by expressing an "unabashed bias" towards Christianity.

For those people who have grown up in  Latino Caribbean communities here in the US, the sight of a person wearing "collares" (bead necklaces) or elekes (the name in Lukumi -the ritual religious language) is as familiar as the wearing of a crucifix.  In Latino neighborhoods there are many stores called Botanicas which offer for sale the herbs, candles, beads and other ritual articles used in both Santeria, as it is popularly called, as well as other related practices like Espiritismo (spiritualism)

In my 30 years of practicing Lukumi, I have known doctors, lawyers, FBI agents, police and corrections officers, TV Broadcasters, college professors, entertainers and average citizens who are practitioners of a system of belief that numbers among its adherents, (if you include the practitioners of Brazilian Candomble) more than 10 million persons in this hemisphere.

I have not hidden my faith here, and have referenced it in a few of my diaries, and commented about it in several pagan diaries.
I am a practicing, initiated Priestess.  I don't harp on it either.
But it is important for me, and for the many members of my faith, along with others who have beliefs and practices which are not mainstream Judeo-Christian ones, that our right to practice is protected under the law.

For many years it was not so.  We were persecuted and misunderstood.  Thanks to the efforts of Miami Cuban priest Ernesto Pichardo, whose case against the city of Hialiah went all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled in our favor, many of us were able to practice in the open, without fear. Jewish people are allowed to eat Kosher meat (ritually sacrificed/prepared) according to Hebraic ritual as are Muslims (Halal meat). Muslims and Jews in America wear ritual head-coverings.  Catholics have shrines and altars.  We have shrines as well, but we are particularly concerned about the right to wear our beads which are given to us as part of our most important first ritual, similar to baptism - except our holy waters are those of the rivers and oceans.

The CNS article referenced this:

Santeria, a religion which came to the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, is relatively unknown in the United States. With adherents in Cuba and elsehwere in the Caribbean, Santeria juxtaposes African polytheism with Roman Catholic saints and rosary beads.

The saints, or orishas, as they are referred to in Santeria, are considered gods and goddesses honored by the faithful. Each devotee has a specific orisha as their patron and guide, which they venerate with shrines, sacrifices and the daily wearing of multicolored beads. These beads signify, according to Santeria beliefs, devotion to their patron and in return gain the wearers positive lives.

The plaintiffs, Campos and Lance, filed suit on First and 14th Amendment grounds that they were denied the right to wear religious beads, which they said were the "hallmark" of their beliefs.

Justice Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx.  Her parents were from Puerto Rico.  Unless she grew up in a total cultural vacuum, it would have been impossible for her to have not known of the existence of Santeria.  Many Santeros are also practicing Catholics, which might sound like a contradiction, but it was an outgrowth of the history of diasporic slavery. Even the Pope is aware of this, and made a point on his last visit to Cuba of visiting some of the most sacred shrines to our Goddesses, who are ofttimes hidden or masked by Catholic Saints. No fool he- he is well aware of the popularity of Afro-Caribbean beliefs.  Even Fidel Castro, who initially tried to repress worship, has had to give up and now allows religious travel between and among practitioners and priests from Nigeria, Benin and Brazil.

CNS presents the history of the case in front of Sotomayor and her comments and ruling:

Under a New York corrections system rule, inmates were allowed to wear under their clothing "only traditionally accepted religious medals, crucifixes or crosses" that are affixed to chains. "It is not acceptable to wear religious medals, crucifixes or crosses that are affixed to beads, leather, strings, or rope," the state regulation states. "The religious medal, crucifix, or cross on a chain, shall not be of such size and design that can be used as a weapon, conceal contraband, or constitute any other threat to the security or safety of the institution."
Under the state’s policy, religious beads "like rosary, Dhikr, or ‘any other traditionally accepted prayer beads’" cannot be worn but may be possessed with permission," the policy added. However, Judge Sotomayor ruled that this policy violated the inmates’ constitutional rights.

"Directive #4202 establishes a hierarchy of religious artifacts, with those items recognized by DOCS personnel as ‘traditional,’ such as crucifixes and crosses, receiving preferred treatment in that inmates may receive and possess and wear them, under their clothing, without DOCS’s prior approval," the judge wrote. Sotomayor also said that the state correctional services department was "blind" to the distinctions made between religions in Directive #4202, which she said impinged on the plantiffs’ rights."These distinctions--distinctions which favor ‘traditional’ over ‘nontraditional’ religions--are more intolerable than any distinction which would permit the wearing of beads by Santeria adherents." Sotomayor wrote.

Sotomayor drew a distinction between the Santeria beads and those of "traditional" medals and prayer beads to inmates."Only in the case of Santeria beads," she wrote, "does the failure to wear them, according to plaintiffs’ beliefs, result in negative and possibly irreversible life consequences for the practitioner." It was up to the state corrections system to prove that the inmates were gang members, Sotomayor said, or else the prison was required to allow the inmates to wear the distinctive beads. "Defendants’ further concern that some currently non-existent inmate group may in the future form and adopt the colors, or that existing gangs may change colors, to coincide with the colors of plaintiffs’ Santeria beads, and then choose to wear them under their clothing without public display, is nothing less than ‘pure speculation,’ which, as I have already stated, cannot and should not be the basis for burdening plaintiffs’ constitutional rights," she wrote.

There are many, like the Freepers, who have been "shocked" by her decision.  I'm sure it hasn't made her many friends among conservative Christians, who want their right to practice their faith and to impose it upon others, but don't want religious freedom, or the freedom to be atheists for others.

Me, I think she is a Wise Latina.

Originally posted to Denise Oliver Velez on Wed Jul 15, 2009 at 04:09 PM PDT.

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