High court rejects teacher's appeal over gay issue Lower court ruling remains intact

June 02, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Passing up a new test case on gay rights, the Supreme Court allowed local school officials yesterday to refuse to hire teachers they suspect or know are gay.

The court chose, however, to step into a constitutional controversy over judges' power to enforce their orders with heavy fines for contempt of court -- an issue around the nation as judges run up the fines to try to stop blockades of abortion clinics and labor unions' picket-line violence.

In a third significant case, the justices ruled 6-3 that individuals who swap a gun for drugs may be given the same mandatory 30-year prison term as those who use a gun as a weapon in an illegal drug deal.

Those actions came as the court began its drive to finish its term and recess by the end of the month.

In the gay rights case, the court left intact a federal appeals court ruling that a local community's "moral opposition to homosexuality" is reason enough for school officials to refuse to hire a teacher they believe to be gay.

That case involves Vernon R. Jantz, a Wichita, Kan., substitute teacher who was denied a full-time high school teaching job because the principal thought he had "homosexual tendencies." Jantz insists that there is no proof that he engaged in any homosexual conduct and that

the principal relied upon a secretary's suggestion that Mr. Jantz acted like a gay person she knew.

The Supreme Court does not often rule on gay rights disputes. It has turned down, or split 4-4, on earlier gay teacher cases. Its last major ruling on homosexuals was in 1985, when it decided that states were free to criminalize homosexual activity.

The court, as usual, gave no reason for refusing to hear Mr. Jantz's appeal.

The justices apparently will use the new case on contempt fines to settle the constitutionality of fines running into the millions of dollars when they are imposed by judges acting without a jury.

The question reached the court in a labor union case. The United Mine Workers and its Virginia local, District 28, were fined $52.9 million for contempt by a state judge for violating his orders against violence and obstruction during a strike at coal mines in the southwest part of the state.

In a series of eight orders, the judge assessed a total of $64.6 million in fines for more than 500 separate violations of his orders. He wiped out $11.6 million of that after the Mine Workers and the two companies the union had struck settled their labor dispute.

The Virginia Supreme Court, in upholding the remaining fines, relied partly upon federal judges' use of escalating fines to coerce the militant anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, to obey orders limiting what they could do in their attempts to shut down abortion clinics.

A final ruling by the court on the contempt fines is expected sometime next year.

OTHER SUPREME COURT ACTIONS

The Supreme Court took these actions among a series of decisions and orders yesterday:

FINAL DECISIONS

Criminal trials: The court ruled unanimously that a criminal conviction must be overturned, no matter how strong the evidence of guilt, if the judge gave the jury an unconstitutional instruction about what "reasonable doubt" means in telling them that guilt must exist "beyond a reasonable doubt." The decision overturned a New Orleans man's conviction for murdering a patron in a bar in 1980.

Bankrupts' homes: In another unanimous decision, the court declared that a bankrupt family trying to work its way out of debt must pay off all the remaining amount of their home loan and cannot scale down their payments just because housing prices have gone down. The case involved a bankrupt Dallas couple who wanted to cut payments on a condominium mortgage to the level of its current market value instead of the actual amount they owed.

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CASES REJECTED

Maryland police: The court refused to consider a plea by the state of Maryland to give police more flexibility in searching the luggage of travelers they suspect of carrying drugs through railroad stations or airport terminals. Maryland courts threw out all the evidence against a Bowie man, Ricky Darden, because police did not have a warrant when they seized his luggage at a Metro station in Prince George's County in 1992. After taking the bag, a drug-sniffing dog indicated that the luggage contained drugs. Police then got a warrant to search the bag and found 223.9 grams of cocaine.

Pledge of Allegiance: The court also declined to consider an Illinois atheist's claim that it is unconstitutional for public school officials to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance because the Pledge refers to the United States as being "one nation under God." Robert Ian Sherman, a Buffalo Grove, Ill., travel agent who is the chief spokesman for the American Society of Atheists, and his first-grade son challenged an Illinois law requiring that the pledge to be said by students every day. Lower courts rejected the complaint.

Vanna White: The court cleared the way for a court trial of a claim by television game-show personality Vanna White that her public image was imitated illegally by an advertisement for Samsung products using a robot turning letters the same way Ms. White does on "Wheel of Fortune."

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