Two religious appeals fail

High court declines to hear cases that could expand church rights

October 02, 2007|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court refused yesterday to expand the rights of church groups by turning down appeals in two cases.

In the first, the justices rejected a free-speech claim from an evangelical minister from Northern California who wanted to hold worship services in the meeting room of a public library.

In the second, the court rejected a freedom-of-religion claim from Catholic Charities in New York, which objected to a state law that requires the organization to pay for contraceptives for its employees as part of their prescription drug coverage.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Tuesday's editions incorrectly said that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had overruled a decision by a three-judge panel in the case of a minister who wanted to hold worship services at the Antioch, Calif., public library. In fact, seven judges of the 9th Circuit filed a dissent in the case.

The justices turned down the two appeals as part of a long list of cases that were dismissed on the opening day of the court's term.

In the past, the high court has said public officials may not discriminate against "religious speech" by, for example, excluding a church group from meeting in the evening at a high school auditorium that is open to other community organizations.

Lawyers for the Alliance Defense Fund, the Christian Legal Society and the National Association of Evangelicals had urged the court to go a step further and rule that officials may not exclude "religious services" from being held in public buildings. They backed an appeal filed by Pastor Hattie Hopkins, who wanted to hold prayer and worship services in a meeting room in a public library in Antioch, Calif., near Oakland.

"Religious worship is not a second-class form of expression that a government may ban from a forum generally open for ... secular expression," said lawyers for Hopkins and the Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries.

The issue split the federal courts in California. A district judge ruled that the library must open its meeting room to the evangelical minister, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed in a 2-1 decision.

The First Amendment does not require that the Antioch library be "transformed into an occasional house of worship," said Judge Richard Paez of Los Angeles, a Clinton appointee. There is a difference between "religious speech" and a "sermon," one judge commented.

In March, the full 9th Circuit Court overruled the decision by the three-judge panel. The ruling against Hopkins "turned a blind eye to blatant viewpoint discrimination" by "singling out what it calls `mere religious worship' for exclusion," wrote Judge Jay Bybee, a Bush appointee.

By turning down the appeal, the high court let stand the 9th Circuit's decision.

In the New York case, lawyers for Catholic Charities said the agency should not be forced "to finance conduct that the church teaches is sinful."

New York, California and more than 20 other states have adopted laws that require employers to include birth control pills in their drug coverage. Though churches are exempted from these laws, the exemption does not extend to church-related groups.

"If the state can compel church entities to subsidize contraceptives in violation of their religious beliefs, it can compel them to subsidize abortions as well," the lawyers argued.

The justices turned down a similar challenge to California's prescription drug law three years ago.

"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.

On the first day of its new term, the court also heard a challenge to Washington state's primary system. The 3-year-old law - which has never taken effect - would allow voters to choose any candidate on the ballot regardless of political affiliation and would let candidates list their "preference" for a political party, regardless of whether they received the endorsement of that party.

Other arguments considered when taxpayers should be responsible for private schooling for special education students, even if the parents have not tried out a specialized public school before seeking reimbursement for private programs.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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