Greenbelt Interfaith News
    U.S. News

    November 1997

    Supreme Court Discards Cases, Including Church-State Disputes
    By Larry Chesser
    Associated Baptist Press

    A handful of church-state disputes were among hundreds of cases the U.S. Supreme Court cleared from its docket Oct. 6, mostly by refusing to review them.

    The high court broke no new church-state ground as it opened its 1997-98 term, refusing to disturb lower court rulings in four church-state cases.

    In a partial exception to that pattern, the high court vacated a federal appeals court's decision that sided with a prisoner's claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

    In June, the Supreme Court said Congress exceeded its authority when it enacted RFRA, which required government to have a compelling reason for laws or policies that place a "substantial burden" on religious practice.

    Inmate John Mack complained in a federal lawsuit that Illinois prison officials substantially burdened his religious practice by refusing to accommodate the religious needs of Muslim prisoners during Ramadan.

    Prison officials argued that their policies were a mere inconvenience, not a substantial burden Mack's religious practice, and a federal district judge agreed.

    But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the districts court's definition of substantial burden was too narrow.

    The appeals court defined a substantial burden "one that forces adherents of a religion to refrain from religiously motivated conduct, inhibits or constrains conduct or expression that manifests a central tenet of a person's religious beliefs, or compels conduct or expression that is contrary to those beliefs."

    Without the broader definition of substantial burden, the appeals court said, judges would be forced into the role of determining which religious practices are mandatory for believers.

    Illinois officials asked the Supreme Court to reverse the appeals court decision. In their Oct. 6 order, justices returned the case to the federal appeals court for reconsideration in light of the high court's invalidation of RFRA.

    In other actions, the high court:

    *Refused to review a federal appeals court decision upholding commencement prayers at a state university.

    The dispute began in 1995 when a law professor James Tanford and three students sought to stop a 155-year-old practice of including prayers at commencement ceremonies at Indiana University's Bloomington campus.

    Attendance at the ceremonies is voluntary. In 1995, approximately 5,000 of the 7,400 graduating students attended the event at the school's football stadium, along with 25,000 to 30,000 guests.

    The appeals court contrasted the university's policy with a Rhode Island middle school graduation practice invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1992. Unlike the Rhode Island practice, the university's policy involved "no coercion real or otherwise to participate," the appeals court said.

    The "mature stadium attendees were voluntarily present and free to ignore the clerics remarks," the appeals court noted. "Most remained seated."

    The court concluded that the university's practice "has prevailed for 155 years and is widespread throughout the nation. Rather than being a violation of the Establishment Clause, it is 'simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.'"

    *Declined to revive a civil-rights claim filed by a Richmond, Virginia, manager who was dismissed after sending letters to co-workers criticizing their lives.

    Lower court rulings rejected religious discrimination claims by Charita Chalmers, a manager at Tulon Co.'s service center in Richmond. She was dismissed after writing letters to two co-workers critical of their lives and beliefs.

    The case hinged, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said, on whether "Chalmers made Tulon aware, prior to her letter writing, that her religious beliefs would cause her to send the letters. Since it is clear that she did not, her claim fails."

    Even if she had notified that company that her religion required her to send the letters, the appeals court concluded, the company would have been unable to accommodate her.

    *Left intact refusals by lower courts to remove a minor child from the foster home of two homosexual males. John Doe, father of the 14-year-old boy, argued that the placement of the boy in the foster home is inconsistent with the tenets of the Catholic faith.

    "The department [of social services] must not place a Catholic minor child into a foster home which, by its very nature, composition and appearance, violates the bedrock fundamental beliefs of the Catholic faith," lawyers for the boy's father argued in urging the high court to review the case.

    *Sidestepped a property dispute involving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and former members of local parishes closed by the diocese. The dispute arose after Donald Wuerl, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, closed the St. Michael's Church and Immaculate Conception Church and reassigned members of those churches to new parishes.

    Former members of the parishes filed suit seeking to assert their rights to the real and personal property of St. Michaels and Immaculate Conception, but a trial court and the Superior Court of Pennsylvania said they lacked standing to sue.

    Next Article

    U.S. News: Interfaith Coalition Backs Religious Freedom Bill for California. By Lori Eppstein.

    HOME November 1997 Index

    © 1997 Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc.
    This article was republished with permission.