Publicly funded crosses, citizenship questions on Census forms, the use of vulgar terms as patents or trademarks and politicians’ right to redraw political boundaries along partisan or racial lines — these are some of the decisions the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to render during a busy session that ends later this month.
Together, they could seriously affect the nation’s culture, political process and religious liberty. They offer some interesting tests for a conservative majority recently bolstered by the addition of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Our hope is that principles of decency and fair representation will be upheld.
That means upholding a U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office decision to deny a trademark to entrepreneur Erik Brunetti, whose clothing brand is, as the office said, a “phonetic spelling” of a vulgar word — one, we add, that tends to earn movies an R rating. Brunetti has argued this is a First Amendment free-speech issue. We disagree. This is, rather, an issue of community standards.
Brunetti is free to operate his business under a vulgar name, as he currently does. That does not mean, however, that he is entitled to the official sanction and protection of the Trademarks Office. If the court were to grant that protection, it could open the way for other off-beat trademarks that offend community standards, make vulgarities common, coarsen the culture and degrade attitudes and discourse generally.
Upholding those principles also means allowing the Maryland “peace cross” to stand. Built in 1925 to honor local casualties in World War I, the monument was designed with the crosses marking the graves of fallen U.S. soldiers abroad in mind. It became the property of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1961, and no one thought twice about it until someone sued in 2012, claiming it constitutes a government establishment of religion.
This case could give the court an opportunity to make a broad ruling about the role of religion in the public square. While government should never endorse a particular sect or church, establishment cases tend to greatly overstate the founders’ intentions regarding the role of religion in public life. It would be difficult, at best, to argue coherently that a publicly funded cross, star or crescent goes beyond recognition of religion’s general role in the nation’s social fabric and establishes an official state-approved religion.
And, finally, it means deciding two gerrymandering cases and one question involving the 2020 Census in ways that are inclusive, rather than divisive.
Each of these cases involves efforts from one political party to gain advantage through the decennial counting of Americans. The Census issue concerns the Trump administration’s desire to ask people if they are legal citizens. Critics say it is a thinly veiled attempt to give Republicans an edge when drawing political boundaries.30 comments on this story
Boundaries also are at the heart of two other cases, one involving two instances of gerrymandering for purely political reasons in two different states (one giving advantage to Republicans, the other to Democrats), and the other involving allegations of racial gerrymandering in Virginia.
These cases are filled with complexities. Ultimately, the court may have trouble defining a sure-fire way to keep political redistricting from becoming political. They should, however, be able to set firm limits on egregious attempts to rob communities of interest from fair representation.
Taken together, these cases could redefine much about American governance and culture. We hope they instead reinforce the American ideals of fairness and decency.