The Supreme Court, confronting the role of religion in the United States, Monday agreed to decide whether a city may erect religious displays during the holiday season and whether a state may deny unemployment benefits to a Christian who refuses to work on Sundays.
The two cases, among 20 the court accepted on the first day of its fall term, give the justices a chance to begin reshaping the law on religion and its role in public life. The First Amendment forbids the “establishment of religion” by government but also protects the “free exercise” of religion by individuals.
Conservatives have complained for decades that the high court, interpreting the “establishment clause” too strictly, has virtually expunged all signs of religion from schools and other government buildings.
At the same time, they protest that the court has given more protection to minority religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists than to mainstream Christians and Jews.
With the two new cases accepted Monday, the court could change direction in both areas.
One case centers on a Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus that has been displayed since 1981 in the Pittsburgh City Hall during the Christmas season. A block away, an 18-foot menorah stands outside an Allegheny County office building during the celebration of Hanukkah.
In 1986, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suits against the city and county, contending that their religious displays violated the ban on the “establishment” of religion by government.
On a 2-1 vote, a panel of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. By prominently displaying the Nativity scene and the menorah in public buildings, the appeals court said in March, the city and county “tacitly endorsed Christianity and Judaism.”
The appeals court acknowledged a Supreme Court decision four years ago upholding the display of a Nativity scene in a Pawtucket, R.I., park. But while the religious display in Rhode Island was only a small part of a larger Christmas scene with reindeer and a decorated tree, the appeals court noted, the religious displays in Pittsburgh stood alone.
The city, the county and a Jewish organization called Chabad filed appeals with the Supreme Court, and on Monday the justices said they would hear the cases as one (County of Allegheny vs. ACLU, 87-2050).
The court also agreed to hear the appeal of an Illinois man who was denied state unemployment benefits because he refused to work on Sundays. William Frazee, who was working as a temporary for Kelly Services, turned down a job that included Sunday work.
“It’s just against my faith” to work on Sunday, he told a state hearing officer when he applied for unemployment aid. “I’m a Christian.”
In 1963, Frazee argued, the Supreme Court ruled that a Seventh-day Adventist could not be denied unemployment benefits for having refused to work on Saturday, her Sabbath day. And in 1981, the justices said that a Jehovah’s Witness could not be denied benefits when he quit a job in a munitions plant.
The state ruled against Frazee, and that position was upheld by an Illinois appeals court, which concluded that he could be denied aid because his decision not to work on Sundays did not result from “a tenet or dogma of an established religious sect.” Lawyers for the Rutherford Institute, which supports conservative religious causes, appealed the case (Frazee vs. Illinois, 87-1945) to the Supreme Court.
In a third case, the high court declined to hear an appeal from members of a minority religion who refused professional medical care for their ailing child. William and Linda Barnhart of Beaver Valley, Pa., were charged with manslaughter after their 2-year-old son died of an untreated abdominal tumor.
As members of the Faith Tabernacle Church, they said that they believed solely in the healing power of prayer. Their attorney contended that the Constitution’s protection of the “free exercise” of religion forbade punishing a family “for putting their faith in God” (Barnhart vs. Pa., 87-1722).
The court also agreed to decide these questions:
--Can a company impose a drug-testing requirement on a union without bargaining? In 1987, Conrail said that it would begin regularly testing railroad workers, but an appeals court in Philadelphia said that the company could not do so without first engaging in collective bargaining.
The justices already have agreed to hear a drug-testing case in which government employees are challenging the constitutionality of federal testing and a ruling in the Conrail case (Conrail vs. Railway Labor Executives, 88-1) could determine the standards to be applied in private industry.
--Can a city license dance halls for teen-agers and limit admission to those between 14 and 18? The Dallas City Council enacted such an ordinance to protect younger teens from the “influence” of older ones, but a Texas appeals court struck it down as an infringement on the rights of those over age 18. The city appealed the case (Dallas vs. Stranglin, 87-1848) to the high court.
--Can Congress ban the mailing of newspapers that contain advertisements for privately run lotteries or list the names of lottery winners? Relying on an 1890 precedent, the Postal Service refuses to carry newspapers with such ads. A federal judge in Minnesota, responding to a challenge by newspapers in the state, upheld the government’s ban on lottery ads but struck down its ban on printing the names of winners. Both sides appealed (Minnesota Newspaper Assn. vs. Postmaster General, 87-1943; Frank vs. Minnesota Newspaper Assn., 87-1956).
--Can city officials take control of a musician’s sound system to control noise in a public park? New York City officials did just that to limit the noise coming from a band shell in Central Park, but a federal appeals court said that the city was unduly interfering with an artist’s right to control his performance (Ward vs. Rock Against Racism, 88-226).