Justices to renew debate on ties of church, state Court will hear two school cases

October 06, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- After a summer's breather, the Supreme Court surged right back yesterday into the heat of the constitutional controversy over government aid to religion.

Although the court's last ruling on the subject in late June provoked angry exchanges among the justices, they reopened the dispute on the first day of their new term by agreeing to hear two new appeals.

One involves a deaf boy in Tucson, Ariz., who has been denied a state-paid sign language interpreter, solely because he goes to a parochial high school. The other involves a evangelical church in a small New York town that has been barred from using public school rooms for worship services and for showing religious films.

The court chose to postpone, at least for a week, another heavy controversy awaiting it: a plea by the Territory of Guam to reinstate the new law that goes the furthest of any in the United States to criminalize abortion.

Although the justices had been expected to act on that case, it was left untouched. It had been predicted widely that they would simply turn down Guam's appeal -- supposedly, on the theory that an almost total ban on abortion could not satisfy the court's new abortion rights ruling last June 29. A lower court struck down the Guam law in April.

The justices have the option of acting on the Guam case soon, perhaps next week. The court never says why it fails to act on a pending case.

The promised decisions on the two new religion cases could lead the court back into a fight -- spurred on by the Bush administration -- over possible easing of the court's 21-year-old constitutional formula requiring government and religion to stay apart.

The administration and conservative religious groups want the court to permit government support of religious activity, so long as no one is coerced in religious beliefs. The court faced that request last term in a case involving prayers at a public school graduation ceremony, but it struck down those prayers in a narrow decision.

The ruling left open the possibility that, in a future case, the court could go further to permit accommodation of religion -- at least when it did not involve prayers in front of public school students. That will be the issue when the court hears the deaf student's case and the evangelical church's appeal in December or January.

In other actions yesterday on church-state issues, the justices passed up a case challenging the required inclusion of religious representatives on advisory panels on AIDS programs at public schools in New York State, and a Texas case on the right of atheists to serve on juries even though they will not -- because of their beliefs -- take an oath to tell the truth.

The court's 82 pages of opening-day action ranged widely over a series of criminal law disputes. The justices promised to decide whether prosecutors may be sued for civil rights damages for what they say at news conferences called to announce criminal charges, whether the FBI has a legal right to keep secret the identity of everyone it interviews in investigations, whether federal law against using guns in drug crimes includes the swap of a gun for drugs, and whether police making a "pat-down" search without a warrant may feel an object in a suspect's pocket to see if it is something illegal.

In a Maryland case, however, the court refused to hear an appeal by the state arguing that an arrest of a suspect should be upheld even though it was based upon a warrant that no longer existed because a police computer had erased it.

The state Court of Appeals barred such arrests in a case involving cocaine possession charges against Thomas E. Ott III of Frederick. The state court said it was the police's fault that the warrant was wiped out of their computer memory, and thus it was wrong for the police to rely upon the warrant in making the arrest.

In other orders, the court left undisturbed a lower court ruling that state college students may not be required to pay a mandatory activity fee to support campus groups whose views they opposed, and a military court decision upholding the ban in military law against sodomy.

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