High court to rule on limits of religious displays on public property

January 14, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Every year, especially at holiday time, a new round opens in the constitutional controversy over the placing of creches, crosses and menorahs on government buildings and in public parks. Yesterday, when the latest round reached the Supreme Court, the court agreed to take it on.

The court voted to rule on a case from Columbus, Ohio, and appeared ready to make a new effort to define the constitutional limits of religious displays on public property.

In that case, the Ohio chapter of the Ku Klux Klan got permission from a lower court to place a 10-foot-tall Christian cross on the lawn of the state Capitol building at Christmas time -- to counter a Jewish menorah marking Hanukkah.

No sooner had the Klan's cross gone up than many others were erected alongside it by other Christian groups -- to counter the identification of the Christian symbol with the Klan.

No clear-cut decision

The Supreme Court for the past decade has acted repeatedly on disputes over such religious holiday displays, but it has not yet issued a clear-cut decision that spelled out what the Constitution allows or forbids. As a result, lower courts have been reaching conflicting rulings.

The court, which several times has thought it was settling the constitutional issue over religious symbols, may have agreed to rule on the Columbus case with the aim of making a major new pronouncement on the subject to clarify matters.

Some religious and civil rights organizations that favor a high wall of separation between government and religion have urged the court to use the Columbus case as the platform for saying, once and for all, that the usual free-speech rights that exist in public forums do not extend to religious expression -- symbolic or verbal.

Others who favor more accommodation of religion in public life want the court to guarantee full equality to expressions of religion in public places.

The court, however, may decide no more than the specific issue at stake in the Columbus case: If the government turns its property into a "public forum," must it allow private groups equal access for their religious displays, so long as the government is not a direct sponsor?

That is a specific question that the court said in 1985 it would answer, but the case back then wound up in a 4-4 split among the justices, thus creating no binding precedent.

How the case developed

The new case is centered on an entire city block in downtown Columbus: Capitol Square, the site of the state Capitol building that houses the legislature and the governor. For many years, its grounds have been used for speeches and other public gatherings.

In recent years, Jewish groups have put up a menorah during Hanukkah, and other groups have set up a Christmas tree. A new legal controversy arose, however, when those displays were placed on the grounds during the December holiday season in 1993. The Ohio Realm of the Ku Klux Klan then demanded space for a Christian cross during the Christmas season.

State officials who manage Capitol Square refused to allow the cross, on the advice of a state lawyer who said it would be unconstitutional. The Klan went to court, and won the right to place the cross on the grounds. That was done that year.

The case went up to a federal appeals court, which ruled in July that private groups wishing to put up a religious display in a governmental "public forum" have as much right to use that space as others planning public events there.

That is the decision the Supreme Court will review, with a final decision due by early summer.

Confinement credit

In another order yesterday, the court agreed to decide whether an individual sent to prison for a federal crime is entitled to credit for time spent in a halfway house before being sentenced.

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled in April that a 1984 federal law assuring credit against a prison sentence for time spent in custody earlier means that credit must also be given when an individual is placed in a halfway house while on bail. Because a stay in a halfway house can mean confinement in "jail-type conditions," credit must be given for time there, the appeals court declared.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, however, contends that an individual released on bail is no longer in official custody, and thus has no right to credit for time in a halfway house -- even if held there under restrictive conditions.

Some federal courts have upheld the bureau's view, while others have agreed with the court in Philadelphia.

The Supreme Court will decide the issue in a case involving a man, Ziya K. Koray, who was given a 41-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty in federal court in Baltimore to illegally "laundering" money to conceal its existence. After being held at a halfway house for 150 days, he was sent to the federal prison camp in Allenwood, Pa. He then sought credit for the time in the halfway house, but the Bureau of Prisons refused.

The appeals court ruled in his favor. A Supreme Court decision is expected within five months.

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