Supreme Court likely to tackle hot issues

washington | The Supreme Court may tackle questions regarding the legal rights of religious prisoners this session, as well as whether the public display of the Ten Commandments violates the separation of church and state.

In what may be the last year of the current makeup of the court, legal experts at several American Jewish organizations are expecting the court to again debate the balance between allowing free expression of religion and preventing governmental establishment of religion.

The court, which opened its session on Monday, Oct. 4, did not officially set a hearing for many of the cases being watched. But cases can be added to the docket at any time.

The fact that lower courts have had contradictory rulings on religious issues increases the chances that they will be heard by the high court.

“The circuits are all over the place,” said Jeffrey Sinensky, general counsel for the American Jewish Committee. “When you have a break in the case, it’s more likely the court will take it.”

The most-watched case in the Jewish community challenges the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The bill requires a compelling governmental interest to prevent religious groups from using land or to prevent free practice of religion by the imprisoned.

It is a more closely tailored version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1997, claiming Congress did not have the authority to enact such a law infringing on states’ rights.

Jewish groups were instrumental in lobbying for Congress to pass both acts.

The Religious Land Use law “is a shield against religious discrimination,” said Michael Lieberman, general counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. “It will be important for the court to uphold it.”

The case before the court centers around Ira Madison, a Virginia prison inmate who was denied the right to be served kosher food. Lower courts questioned the sincerity of Madison’s claim that he was a member of the “Hebrew Israelites” and suggested that by granting special provisions to the religious, government was encouraging prisoners to become religious.

Jewish groups counter, however, that religious practices should be tolerated unless there is an express, compelling governmental interest in denying them.

Also being watched this year are four cases regarding the public display of religious symbols, including the Ten Commandments, any of which could be taken to the high court.

The court, on its first day, refused the best-known Ten Commandments case, which was brought by Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He was ousted last year because he would not remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from his courthouse.

His case focused on the legality of his removal from the bench.

Other cases the court could decide to hear focus on the express display of the Ten Commandments.

While Jewish groups have closely watched the Ten Commandments cases, concerned about the display of religious items and the separation of church and state, they have not focused much energy on the issue. Some Jewish legal authorities have determined the erection of Judeo-Christian symbols is not a grave offense, like the question of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Jewish groups are also watching to see if the court takes any additional cases on the restitution of money and property of Holocaust survivors.

The court ruled in June that foreign governments can be sued in U.S. courts over looted art, stolen property and war crimes from the Holocaust era.