US High Court Won’t Hear Two Religion Cases


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court returned to work Monday by sidestepping two church-state cases that social conservatives had hoped the justices would use to chart a rightward course.

The justices decided not to consider a challenge by religious groups to a New York law requiring health plans to cover birth control pills, and a California case in which an evangelical group was denied use of a public library for religious services.

“We were hoping the Supreme Court would provide broader protections for religious liberties, and both these cases were excellent vehicles to do that,” said Jordan Lorence, an attorney representing the evangelical group that was turned away from the library in Antioch, Calif.

Monday’s session _ the first of the term _ opened with Chief Justice John Roberts, who suffered an unexplained seizure during the summer, actively questioning lawyers in two cases argued before justices.

The cases involved a Washington state dispute over its political primaries and New York City’s challenge of a court ruling forcing it to pay private schooling for a special education student who never tried out public schools.

Monday also marked the publication of Justice Clarence Thomas’ autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son.” As part of the sales effort for the book, Thomas has sat for lengthy interviews with two television networks and conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.

In court, Thomas was no less reticent than usual, asking no questions during two hours of argument.

One of the two oral arguments was over forcing the city of New York to pay for private schooling for a special education student, a case notable for the fact that the man who sued the city is Tom Freston, a former CEO of Viacom.

Justice Antonin Scalia, among several justices skeptical of Freston’s case, said affluent parents who have no intention of using public schools might think “what the heck, if we can get $30,000 from the city, that’s fine.”

In the argument over the Washington case, the political parties want more say over how candidates identify their party affiliations on the ballot.

Justice David Souter said candidates were unlikely to identify themselves with a party unless they agree broadly with its principles.

Earlier, the court issued a list of cases it would not hear this year. No explanation was given for the justices’ decision not to consider the cases.

Among them was the dispute over a New York state law that forces religious-based social service agencies to subsidize contraceptives as part of prescription drug coverage they offer their employees.

New York is one of 23 states that require employers offering prescription benefits to employees to cover birth control pills as well. The state enacted the Women’s Health and Wellness Act in 2002 to require health plans to cover contraception and other services aimed at women, including mammography, cervical cancer screenings and bone density exams.

Catholic Charities and other religious groups say that New York’s law violates their First Amendment right to practice their religion because it forces them to violate religious teachings that regard contraception as sinful. Religious groups argue that the beliefs of the employer must dominate; their opponents counter that the ethical beliefs of employees must be respected.

“Every state court that has heard this case has affirmed that the law helps to provide access to basic health care. Today’s decision by the Supreme Court not to consider the case protects the religious freedom of women and families,” said JoAnn M. Smith, president and CEO of Family Planning Advocates of New York State.

The New York law has an exemption for churches, and the plaintiffs in the Catholic Charities lawsuit included two Baptist churches. In 2004 before the arrival of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, the court declined to hear a similar case brought by Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Calif., which did not include any churches as plaintiffs.

“We thought the addition of Roberts and Alito and the fact that we included churches would make a difference. It didn’t. I think the battle has been fought and lost,” said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops.

Lorence, the lawyer in the library case, disagreed.

“The Supreme Court likes to have issues percolate for a while at the lower courts. They also look for the best vehicle to address a specific issue. This very well could end up at the Supreme Court,” Lorence said of the requirement that religious groups cover birth control pills.

Lorence is an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, which represented Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries in the dispute in Antioch, Calif., over conducting religious services in the public library.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Pete Yost and Mark Sherman, AP, via The Washington Post, Oct. 1, 2007,

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday October 2, 2007.
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