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Behind the Headlines: Major Cases of Supreme Court Term Concern Discrimination, Not Religion

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The U.S. Supreme Court is not expected to deal with church-state issues in its new term, which began Monday.

But Jewish groups are concerned about a case in which the court is being asked to decide whether anti-discrimination laws apply to U.S. citizens working for American firms abroad.

Jewish groups are also interceding in two cases involving women’s rights. One concerns the denial of federal funds to family planning clinics that counsel women on abortions. The other looks at whether a company’s “fetal protection” policy discriminates against women.

In its opening session Monday, the court declined to review a creche case in which a lower court ruled that a private group could not display a nativity scene on the lawn of a county government building in Charlottesville, Va.

The court has refused to hear several creche cases since its decision in June to uphold an appellate court ruling barring the display of a menorah in a public park in Burlington, Vt.

The American Jewish Congress has joined a brief in the overseas discrimination case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vs. Aramco. The group argues that a 9-5 ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans should be overturned.

The appellate court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not apply to U.S. citizens working abroad. Although the individual involved is not Jewish, the issue is of great concern to the Jewish community, since Title VII prohibits job discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin, said Marc Stern, AJCongress legal director.

A ‘CAMPAIGN OF HARASSMENT’

Samuel Rabinove, legal director of the American Jewish Committee, said his organization is studying whether to participate in this case. He said similar cases have been decided by federal courts with various outcomes, but this is the first time the issue has reached the Supreme Court.

The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith is also considering entering the case, according to Jess Hordes, director of ADL’s Washington office.

When the federal appeals court decision was announced in February, Justin Finger, ADL’s associate director, called it “disappointing,” because it sends a message to other companies that “discrimination against Americans is acceptable as long as it does not occur on American soil.”

The case involves Ali Boureslan, a U.S. citizen born in Lebanon who charges that while working for Aramco in Saudi Arabia, he was subjected to a “campaign of harassment” by a supervisor, including racial, religious and ethnic slurs.

The Bush administration, in challenging the appellate court ruling, said it would mean that the estimated 2.2 million Americans living abroad would lose the protection of Title VII. The EEOC was investigating 50 charges of employment discrimination abroad as of January 1989.

But Aramco’s lawyers argue that if Congress had wanted to protect overseas Americans, it would have made this explicit in the law. They warned that including Americans abroad in the law’s protection “would create conflicts with the laws of other countries and in the operation of multinational corporations that employ work forces composed of individuals from many nations.”

The abortion counseling case, Rust vs. Sullivan, involves 1988 federal regulations prohibiting family planning clinics receiving government funds from providing information about abortion, even if patients request it.

COULD AFFECT MANY WOMEN

ADL has joined with doctors, family planning organizations and the city and state of New York to challenge a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upholding the regulation. Appeals courts in Boston and Denver have also upheld the constitutionality of the regulation.

Hordes said ADL sees the regulation as a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.

But the Bush administration argues that the First Amendment is not violated by a requirement that those who voluntarily accept federal funds comply with the conditions for the grant.

The administration maintains the government is not creating an obstacle to abortion by refusing to pay for abortion counseling.

Stern of AJCongress said that the Jewish community should also closely watch the fetal protection case, Auto Workers vs. Johnson Controls, since it could affect many women beyond the immediate issue involved.

In the case, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled 7-4 that a battery manufacturer could exclude women between the ages of 18 and 70 from the manufacturing process, because they would be in contact with lead that could produce birth defects in their children.

Stern said the case involves complicated scientific evidence. He pointed out that there is also scientific evidence that men’s sperm can be affected by lead.

But he warned that should the appellate ruling be upheld, women could conceivably be excluded from other jobs that involve chemicals or substances that could be considered harmful.

Finally, AJCommittee has filed a brief in Board of Education of Oklahoma City vs. Dowell, supporting an appeals court decision that the city must continue court-ordered busing to eliminate discrimination. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Tuesday.

FEWER CASES THIS YEAR

In 1984, the school board decided to end 13 years of court-ordered busing and return to neighborhood schools for grades one through four. The board maintains it eliminated discrimination.

But now, 10 of the city’s 58 elementary schools are again virtually all black. Oklahoma City schools were segregated by law until the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawed the practice.

AJCommittee and civil rights groups say the school board should be under a continuing obligation to provide an integrated school system and cannot abandon a court order on its own.

Over all, the court has accepted fewer cases this year than last. In fact, Agudath Israel of America, which was involved in several cases before the court last year, is not taking a public stand on any of the cases this year as of now, according to Abba Cohen, the Orthodox group’s Washington representative.

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