- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

From combined dispatches

The Supreme Court said yesterday it would consider reinstating a federal ban on what opponents call partial-birth abortion, pulling the contentious issue back to the high court on conservative Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s first day.

The justices also said followers of a small Brazilian-based religion can import and use hallucinogenic tea in their ceremonies, in an unanimous decision in a case pitting religious rights against federal drug laws.

The court’s opinion, the first ruling on religious freedom written by new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., rejected the U.S. government’s efforts to stop the import and use of sacramental hoasca tea by the New Mexican branch of the religion, called O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal.

In the abortion case, Justice Alito could be the tie-breaking vote when the court decides whether doctors can be barred from performing the abortion procedure.

It is the first time that the court has considered a federal restriction on abortion, and conservatives said they expect the membership change to affect the outcome.

“This is the frontline abortion case in the country,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, who represents members of Congress in the case.

Justices split 5-4 in 2000 in striking down a state law barring the same procedure because it lacked an exception to protect the health of the mother. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who cast was the tie-breaking vote, retired late last month and was replaced by Justice Alito.

Abortion was a major focus in the fight over Justice Alito’s nomination, and that of new Chief Justice Roberts. Neither divulged how he would vote.

Justices will hear arguments this fall, as voters prepare for midterm elections, with a ruling likely next year as presidential campaigns begin.

At issue is whether the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act that Mr. Bush signed into law in 2003 is unconstitutional because it lacks an exception to protect the health of a pregnant woman.

In the religious-freedom case, the justices upheld an appeals-court ruling that the government must allow the use of the herbal hoasca tea as part of a spiritual practice because of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Chief Justice Roberts dismissed the government’s central argument that it has a compelling interest in the uniform application of drug law and that there can be no exception for using the hallucinogen to accommodate sincere religious practice.

“The government’s argument echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the 19-page opinion.

He said the government already has made an exception to the drug laws by allowing peyote use by American Indian churches.

In other action yesterday, the court:

• Passed up a chance to decide whether college administrators can censor campus newspapers.

• Stepped into a dispute over whether white managers can be sued for calling black employees “boys.” The court unanimously overturned an appeals-court decision that said the term “boy” alone was not evidence of workplace discrimination and ordered the court to reconsider the matter.

• Heard arguments in cases from Maine and Michigan that test the Clean Water Act.

• Revived an attempt by Colorado Republicans to block a congressional-election map.

• Refused to hear an appeal by two tobacco companies that claimed that California’s tough anti-smoking advertisements smeared their reputations.

• Ordered an appellate court to reconsider allowing the brother of a victim of Iranian terrorism to collect $2.8 million from a California company that owes Iran for a canceled weapons shipment.

• Agreed to weigh in on a dispute between providers of pay-phone services and long-distance carriers over compensation when consumers dial toll-free numbers.

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