National Edition

Social issues appear on new Supreme Court docket

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 8 2013 6:35 p.m. MDT

The United States Supreme Court won’t be slowing down in its next term, even after a series of historic decisions in its last round of cases. The new term, which started Monday, will feature several cases on social issues ranging from public prayer and abortion to affirmative action and campaign spending.

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The United States Supreme Court won’t be slowing down in its next term, even after a series of historic decisions in its last round of cases.

The new term, which started Monday, will feature several cases on social issues ranging from abortion and public prayer to affirmative action and campaign spending. A few of these high-profile cases are highlighted below.

Jesse Choper, public law professor at Berkeley Law at the University of California Berkeley, said many of these cases are unpredictable.

“You just don’t know which way they’re going to go," he said. “But the majority of the cases (the court usually takes) are to reverse decisions."

Religious liberty appeal

One case not yet on the Supreme Court's docket, but that will almost certainly be heard this term, is the government’s request that the Supreme Court review a decision in the Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius case. In this case, the for-profit arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby asked for an exemption from the Affordable Care Act's requirement that companies with more than 50 employees offer health care plans with contraceptive options, based on owner David Green's religious objections to contraception.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the U.S. said the federal law doesn’t ask the Greens to personally offer health coverage or satisfy other legal obligations of corporations. Instead, the U.S. said, Hobby Lobby as an employer is responsible for a “group health plan for the more than 13,000 full-time employees.” And that health plan is required by the Affordable Care Act to provide contraceptive coverage, the U.S. said.

According to attorney Kyle Duncan of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Hobby Lobby, the company must file an appeal by Oct. 21 to respond to the government’s appeal. After filing the response, the case will be presented to the Supreme Court for review.

“I would expect (the response to be reviewed) sometime near Thanksgiving,” Duncan said.

The result of this case could offer a precedent for how for-profit companies obtain religious exemptions and how religious owners can consult their beliefs when making decisions that impact personnel.

Public prayer

The small town of Greece, N.Y., will ask the court to allow it to continue opening meetings with a prayer, even though an appeals court ruled the invocations were a violation of the First Amendment because they were always Christian prayers. In this case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court's ruling could uphold a 1983 decision, Marsh v. Chambers, that set a precedent for allowing an invocation in legislative meetings, or it could outlaw prayer at town meetings.

If the decision is upheld, Greece will be allowed to continue to have prayer before its meeting, said Attorney Thomas G. Hungar, who represents the town of Greece. If the court were to rule against the New York town, Hungar said it would create confusion and ultimately reshape the way many government meetings begin.

“We think Americans in the 21st century should be as free to pray and have religious invocations … as people who were at the time as the framing of our Constitution,” Hungar said.

The Supreme Court could reach an alternate decision, Hungar said. This option would still allow Greece to have invocations at their meetings, but with restrictions. For example, a prayer-giver could refer to God, but otherwise couldn’t refer to anything specific that could offend people of different religions, Hungar said. Another alternative, Hungar said, would be for the court to mandate an invocation of “a civic religion," which would allow the invocation to occur but not mention God or any specific type of God.

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