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High court refuses church-state cases

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Supreme Court opened its new term yesterday, refusing to get involved in two church-state disputes — one over religious organizations paying for workers' birth-control health insurance benefits, the other over an evangelical group's plea to hold religious services at a public library.

The birth-control dispute was triggered by a New York state law that forces religious-based social-service agencies to subsidize contraceptives as part of prescription coverage they offer employees.

New York is one of 23 states that require employers offering prescription benefits to cover birth-control pills, the groups said. The state enacted the Women's Health and Wellness Act in 2002 to require health plans to cover contraception and other women's services.

Catholic Charities and other religious groups argued that New York's law violates their First Amendment right to practice their religion because it forces them to violate religious teachings that regard contraception as sinful.

"If the state can compel church entities to subsidize contraceptives in violation of their religious beliefs, it can compel them to subsidize abortions as well," the groups said.

Other Catholic and Baptist organizations are part of the lawsuit. Seventh-day Adventist and Orthodox Jewish groups signed onto a brief filed in support of Catholic Charities.

In the library case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 2-1 that public libraries can block religious groups from worshipping in public meeting rooms.

The Contra Costa library system in the San Francisco Bay area allows groups to use its facilities for educational, cultural and community-related programs.

Allowing worship services would amount to having taxpayers subsidize religious exercises, argued the Contra Costa County Library Board, which operates the facility in Antioch, Calif.

In the dispute over making religious groups subsidize contraceptives, the court rejected a challenge to a similar law in California.

The New York law contains an exemption for churches, seminaries and other institutions with mainly religious missions that primarily serve followers of that religion. Catholic Charities and the other groups sought the exemption, but they hire and serve people of different faiths.

New York's highest court ruled last year that the groups had to comply with the law.

In other rulings or arguments yesterday:

• The court took up the issue of when taxpayers should be responsible for private schooling for special-education students.

• The court refused to hear the case of Guantanamo Bay detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who was challenging the legality of the military commission system that plans to try him for war crimes.

• The court rejected a request by tobacco companies to consider making it harder for smokers to prove they were misled by the industry.