06/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Break For Obama: Social Conservatives Hang Back On Sotomayor

No one expected President Barack Obama to win over religious or cultural conservatives with his choice for the Supreme Court. But in the hours that followed the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the bench, he has received what could be the next best thing. Social conservative organizations, which have proven to be vastly influential players in Court battles over the last eight years, are largely holding their tongues. Some have even offered cautious praise for the pick.

Sotomayor "gives us some room for optimism" with respect to issues of historic importance to socially conservative groups, said Bruce Hausknecht, a judicial analyst at Focus on the Family. On issues of "abortion funding and protesting...[and] also on religious speech and religious freedom, she applied the law correctly," he added. The reference was to Sotomayor's dismissal of a claim from abortion rights group that challenged the "global gag rule" on first amendment grounds.

To be sure, the reviews aren't all glowing. Hausknecht went on to air the same critiques of Sotomayor heard from a wide swath of conservative figures. "She has said that the appellate court is where policy is made," he said, "which is another way of saying that appellate judges should be legislating from the bench."

But the early word on the nomination has lacked the expected vitriol, suggesting that social conservatives are unsure of how fiercely they should oppose the nominee.

"Right now we're just asking that the Senate Judiciary Committee take the time to review the candidate," said Mario Diaz, Policy Director for Legal Issues at Concerned Women for America.

There may be a number of reasons why religious groups are hanging back. At a moment when there is very little political capital to go round in the Republican Party, it would seem prudent to pick their battles, especially when most political commentators, including many Republicans, expect the nomination to be confirmed. Religious groups in particular may be treading carefully in hopes of healing the rift with Hispanics, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama last November.

Indeed, even some of the harshest critics seemed to grudgingly acknowledge the current political realities.

Andrea Lafferty, Executive Director of the Traditional Values Coalition, cited the number of Sotomayor's decisions that were overturned by the Supreme Court, which legal scholars have dismissed as standard for appellate rulings. Lafferty insisted that Sotomayor, who was appointed under President H.W. Bush by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was not a "bipartisan pick" or a true Bush appointee. She claimed that the judge had "empathy for the poor, gays and minorities" that would make her "likely to ignore the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law." But she also remarked that the nomination was "partially a wash with Souter," though Sotomayor would "probably be even more liberal."

"She fits the bill," Lafferty added. "I mean, we're not surprised. ... The left assumes she's going to get a pass from the Hispanic community... that's not necessarily true."