U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Two Key Church-state Cases
Menu JTA Search

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Two Key Church-state Cases

Download PDF for this date

The new Supreme Court term has shaped up as a busy one for Jewish groups, with the court agreeing to hear arguments in two key church-state cases and a challenge of a landmark civil rights decision.

Beyond those individual cases, the term, which opened Monday, will be watched for signs of President Reagan’s influence in shaping the court.

For instance, Reagan’s third and most recent appointee to the high court, Justice Anthony Kennedy, may be in a position to cast the deciding vote in a review of Patterson vs. McLean Credit Union.

The court will use that case to decide whether to overturn a 1976 ruling, Runyon vs. McCrary, that upheld a broad interpretation of the Civil Right Act of 1866. The Reconstructionist-era law bars race discrimination in both the public and private sectors.

If the court overturns its 12-year-old ruling, it will “take away a powerful remedy for victims of discrimination,” said Jill Kahn, associate director of legal affairs at the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

ADL, along with the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and more than 100 other religious and civil rights organizations have signed onto a brief urging the court to hold fast to the Civil Rights Act.

The court began hearing arguments in the case Wednesday, but is not expected to issue a ruling before the first of the year.


A second major civil rights case may not engender as unanimous a response among Jewish groups. In hearing City of Richmond (Va.) vs. J.A. Croson Co., the court will consider a city ordinance that required city contractors to set aside 30 percent of city contracts to minority-owned businesses.

In Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action going back 10 years, including five during the last two terms, the court has consistently upheld almost all types of race and gender preference programs.

But those decisions were very closely argued, said Marc Stern, co-director of the AJCongress Commission on Law and Social Action. “There is intense speculation that the court will undo much of its prior approval of affirmative action,” said Stern.

Few organizations have yet to take official stands on the current case, which will be heard Oct. 12, But most Jewish groups have long stood in opposition to hiring quotas.

In the church-state realm, the court decided Monday that it will hear an appeal of two lower court decisions that barred both a menorah and a nativity scene from being displayed on public property in Pittsburgh.

The case, ACLU et al. vs. County of Allegheny and City of Pittsburgh, will mark the first time that the court will decide on the constitutionality of a menorah display in addition to creche or cross displays.

The case also will pit Jewish organizations against one another. Arguing in favor of the menorah display is Chabad, the Lubavitch Hasidic movement. Representing one of the plaintiffs in the case who challenged the display is the ADL.


The ADL contends that both the creche and the menorah are sectarian religious symbols, and that their placement on government property violates the First Amendment clause that prohibits the enactment of laws respecting “the establishment of religion.”

Chabad and its supporters, however, including the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, or COLPA, argue that the display of a menorah beside a Christmas tree and other holiday decorations constitutes equal treatment of religions.

“This is a case of reasonable accommodation of different faiths, not a violation of the establishment clause,” said Dennis Rapps, COLPA’s executive director.

Opponents of public religious displays have mixed feelings about the court’s decision to hear the cases. On one hand, the court is in a position to deliver a decisive ruling on an issue that has remained unclear in state and lower court rulings. On the other hand, most of those rulings have gone against the displays, and opponents fear a reversal of that pattern.

The court also agreed Monday to hear a case involving free exercise of religion that may have far-reaching implications.

In Frazee vs. Department of Employment Security, an Illinois man says he was denied state unemployment benefits because he refused to work on Sunday, his sabbath, despite the fact that he belonged to no organized church or denomination.

Although a previous Supreme Court decision upheld the principle of a religious worker’s rights, the current case will ask the court, in essence, to define a religion or religious belief deserving constitutional protection.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund