Supreme Court rebuffs bid to expand legal protections for gun silencers

FILE PHOTO: SilencerCo CEO Joshua Waldron shows guns with suppressors in West Valley City, Utah February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned away a bid to widen legal protections for gun silencers in a case involving two Kansas men convicted for failing to register the devices as required by federal law, as the justices again sidestepped a chance to rule on the scope of the right to bear arms.

The justices declined to hear appeals by the two men, Shane Cox and Jeremy Kettler, and left in place their convictions in cases brought by federal prosecutors. The men had asked the court to decide whether silencers – muzzle attachments that suppress the sound of a gunshot – are covered by the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which protects the right to keep and bear arms.

The court’s action came in the aftermath of a May 31 mass shooting in the Virginia coastal city of Virginia Beach in which a gunman who killed 12 people used weapons including a handgun equipped with a silencer.

President Donald Trump, a Republican with a close relationship to the National Rifle Association pro-gun lobby, said in an interview aired on June 5 that he does not like silencers and would be open to considering banning the devices. His administration this year imposed a ban on “bump stock” attachments that enable semi-automatic weapons to be fired rapidly, with the Supreme Court in March permitting the policy to take effect.

Kettler and Cox were prosecuted together in 2014 after Kettler purchased a silencer from Cox’s military surplus store in Chanute, Kansas. Both were prosecuted under a federal law called the National Firearms Act, which requires registration of certain firearms, with silencers included in a list of covered items along with grenades, machine guns and bombs.

Cox was convicted of possessing an unregistered silencer as well as an unregistered short-barreled rifle and transferring unregistered silencers. Kettler was convicted of possessing an unregistered silencer.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld both men’s convictions last year, prompting them to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In January, the Supreme Court agreed to hear its biggest gun rights case since 2010, taking up a challenge to New York City’s strict limits on handgun owners transporting their firearms outside the home.

New York officials are considering revising the measure, which may lead to the Supreme Court case becoming moot before the justices hear arguments in their next term, which begins in October.

The court in recent years has been reluctant to take up gun cases and has yet to decide whether the Second Amendment protects a right to carry guns in public, a question left unanswered in its two most recent gun-related decisions.

In its 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller ruling, the court held that the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual right to bear arms. In its 2010 McDonald v. City of Chicago ruling, the court held that the earlier ruling applied to the states.

The court currently has two appeals pending that ask for the justices to rule that the right to bear arms extends outside the home, as well as two other gun-related cases. The justices may be waiting for the New York case to be resolved before deciding what moves to take on the other cases.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court takes up Mexican border shooting dispute

FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court stands in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to decide whether the family of a Mexican teenager fatally shot while on Mexican soil by U.S. Border Patrol agent who fired from across the border in Texas can pursue a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. courts.

It marks the second time the Supreme Court will consider the legal dispute involving Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, who was 15 when he was slain in 2010 along the U.S.-Mexico border – a case that now will be decided during heightened U.S. tensions with Mexico over President Donald Trump’s border policies.

The justices will decide whether to allow the family’s civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages against Border Patrol agent Jesus Mesa to proceed.

The court previously ruled in the same case in 2017, but did not decide the important legal question of whether Hernandez’s family could sue for a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which bars unjustified deadly force. The lawsuit also states that Hernandez’s right to due process under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment was violated.

The justices instead threw out a ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had barred the lawsuit and asked the lower court to reconsider the matter. The 5th Circuit last year again ruled against Hernandez’s relatives, prompting them to seek Supreme Court intervention for a second time.

The high court’s ruling likely also will affect a similar cross-bordering shooting case in which Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz fatally shot Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old Mexican citizen, from across the border in Arizona. That case is also pending at the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, has been generally reluctant to extend the scope of civil rights protections. For example, it ruled in 2017 that former U.S. officials who served under President George W. Bush could not be sued over the treatment of non-American citizen detainees rounded up in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The Trump administration, which has taken a tough stance on border security and other immigration issues, has urged the court not to allow the Hernandez and Rodriguez lawsuits.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court takes no action in Indiana abortion cases

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday took no action on appeals seeking to revive two restrictive Republican-backed abortion laws from Indiana, even as debate rages over a new measure in Alabama that would prohibit the procedure almost entirely.

Neither Indiana case was on the list of appeals on which the court acted on Monday morning. The court could next announce whether or not it will hear the cases on May 28.

If the nine-justice court takes up either case, it would give the conservative majority an opportunity to chip away at the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and recognized a right under the U.S. Constitution for women to terminate pregnancies.

One of the Indiana laws requires fetal remains to be buried or cremated and bans abortions performed because of fetal disability or the sex or race of the fetus. The other law requires women to undergo an ultrasound examination at least 18 hours before they undergo an abortion.

Both Indiana measures were signed into law in 2016 by Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor and were struck down by federal judges the following year. The state of Indiana is appealing to the Supreme Court.

The Alabama law was signed by Republican Governor Kay Ivey last week but is not set to go into effect for six months. It would outlaw almost all abortions, including in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Exceptions would be allowed only to protect the mother’s health. Doctors who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison.

The Alabama law was written with the assumption that it would face legal challenges and could ultimately end up at the high court.

Conservative activists have long denounced the Roe v. Wade decision and hope that the conservative Supreme Court justices, who hold a 5-4 majority, will undermine or even overturn it.

Their chances of success were given a boost last year by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had backed abortion rights in two key cases. Kennedy was replaced by President Donald Trump’s conservative appointee Brett Kavanaugh, who has a thin record on abortion.

Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced this year in 16 states. Four governors have signed bills banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected.

Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts, who has voted against abortion rights in previous cases, are seen by legal experts as the key votes to watch.

The high court has two other abortion cases on its docket that it will also act on in the coming months – attempts by Alabama and Louisiana to revive other previously blocked abortion restrictions.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Bill Berkrot and Will Dunham)

Supreme Court to decide if LGBT workers protected under sex discrimination law

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether U.S. law banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sex protects gay and transgender workers, as the conservative-majority court waded into a fierce dispute involving a divisive social issue.

At issue in the high-profile legal fight is whether gay and transgender people are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, color, national origin and religion.

The court will take up two cases concerning gay people who have said they were fired due to their sexual orientation, one involving a New York skydiving instructor named Donald Zarda and another brought by a former county child welfare services coordinator from Georgia named Gerald Bostock.

The court also will take up a Detroit funeral home’s bid to reverse a ruling that it violated federal law by firing a transgender funeral director named Aimee Stephens after Stephens revealed plans to transition from male to female.

The court will hear oral arguments and issue a ruling in its next term, which starts in October.

President Donald Trump’s administration has argued that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity. The Republican president’s administration reversed the approach taken under Democratic former President Barack Obama by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws banning workplace discrimination.

The Title VII fight marks the first major test on a divisive social issue for the nine justices since Trump’s conservative appointee Brett Kavanaugh joined the court in October after a contentious Senate confirmation process. Kavanaugh replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative noted for his support for gay rights who retired last year.

Kennedy wrote the 5-4 ruling in 2015 legalizing gay marriage nationally, a landmark in the U.S. gay rights movement. Kennedy also was the author of the court’s important 2003 ruling striking down laws criminalizing gay sex.

The Supreme Court has a 5-4 conservative majority that includes two Trump appointees, Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

The legal fight centers on the definition of “sex” in Title VII. The plaintiffs in the cases, along with civil rights groups and many large companies, have argued that discriminating against gay and transgender workers is inherently based on their sex and thus is unlawful.

But Trump’s Justice Department and the employers that were sued have argued that Congress did not mean for Title VII to extend to gay and transgender people when it passed the law in 1964.

Zarda, fired after revealing his sexual orientation in 2010, died in a 2014 accident while participating in a form of skydiving in which people jump off a high structure or cliff. His estate has continued the litigation.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2018 ruled in Zarda’s favor after a trial judge threw out his original claim.

Bostock worked for Clayton County, just south of Atlanta, from 2003 until being fired in 2013 shortly after he started participating in a gay recreational softball league called the “Hotlanta Softball League.” The county has said he was fired following an audit of the program he managed. His lawsuit was tossed out the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Harris Funeral Homes, the employer in the transgender case, is owned by Thomas Rost, who identifies himself as a devout Christian. The company has a strict sex-specific dress code that requires male employees to wear suits and women to wear dresses or skirts. Stephens, formerly known as Anthony Stephens, joined the company in October 2007.

Stephens was fired when he announced plans to transition from male to female.

Rost said that “this is not going to work out,” according to court papers. Stephens subsequently turned to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued on Stephens’ behalf in 2014. The company is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 ruled against the company.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Bitter divisions on death penalty in U.S. top court exposed in Alabama showdown

Death row inmate Christopher Price is seen in this undated Alabama Department of Corrections photo obtained from Montgomery, Alabama, U.S., on April 10, 2019. Courtesy Alabama Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court exposed its bitter divisions over the death penalty yet again early Friday as the justices voted on ideological lines to reject an Alabama inmate’s bid to delay his execution.

On a 5-4 vote with the court’s conservatives in the majority, the court reversed two lower court decisions that delayed the execution of Christopher Price, 46, for 60 days so he could proceed with his request to be executed by lethal gas instead of lethal injection.

It was the third time in recent weeks the court has divided 5-4 on a death penalty case, with the conservatives in the majority each time.

The court’s order was released too late for the execution to take place, so Alabama will have to set a new execution date. State officials did not immediately respond to questions about their plans on Friday.

The court said in its order that Price had waited too long to pursue his claim.

Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the liberal justices, called the litigation an example of arbitrary administration of the death penalty. He wrote that Price’s claim failed because of a “minor oversight” by his lawyer when filing evidence to support his argument.

“To proceed in this way calls into question the basic principles of fairness that should underlie our criminal justice system,” Breyer wrote.

He also noted that the justices were due to meet Friday morning and could have discussed the issue then instead of acting in the middle of the night. The three other liberal justices on the nine-justice court joined Breyer’s opinion.

Price was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 for killing William Lynn, a minister, in his home in Bazemore, Alabama, on Dec. 22, 1991, as he assembled Christmas presents with his wife.

On Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose granted Price’s attorneys the 60-day stay and gave the state until May 10 to respond to their arguments that the three-drug protocol risked causing Price significant pain and that nitrogen hypoxia would reduce that risk.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Constitution did not guarantee a condemned prisoner “a painless death,” paving the way for the execution of convicted murderer Russell Bucklew, who sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition.

In that majority opinion, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch took aim at the tactics of death penalty defense lawyers who frequently file last-minute applications to delay executions.

The court in February voted 5-4 to allow the execution of a Muslim convicted murderer after Alabama denied his request to have an imam present, saying he waited too long to file his lawsuit.

In March, however, the court blocked the execution of a convicted murderer whose request to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser present at the execution was denied by Texas..

Six executions in the United States scheduled during the first three months of 2019 have been stayed or rescheduled.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

Trump declares U.S. census ‘meaningless’ without citizenship question

U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question as he speaks to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Susan Heavey and Jonathan Stempel

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday injected himself into one of the most consequential cases of the current Supreme Court term, saying the nation’s 2020 census would be “meaningless” without adding a citizenship question to the questionnaire.

The comment on Twitter came ahead of an expected ruling from the Supreme Court on whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to add the citizenship question violated federal law.

“Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all important Citizenship Question,” Trump tweeted. “Report would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions (ridiculous) that it costs to put together!”

The citizenship question is among a series of White House policies signaling tighter control over immigration.

These include Trump’s declaration in February of a national emergency to obtain funds for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and his threat to close the border as soon as this week, disrupting legal crossings as well as trade.

The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years, with results used to draw political boundaries, allocate seats in Congress and at the state and local level, and distribute roughly $800 billion of federal funds.

Critics have accused Trump of encouraging an undercount by dissuading immigrants from participating in the census, more likely hurting Democrats than Republicans.

When Ross announced the addition of a citizenship question in March 2018, he said it was in response to a Department of Justice request for data to help enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects eligible voters from discrimination.

Only U.S. citizens can vote in federal elections. Non-citizens comprise about 7 percent of the 328.7 million people living in the United States. Census questionnaires have not included a citizenship question since 1950.

“The census is the administration’s new front on its war on immigration and, sadly, the president’s tweet today bears out that concern,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director on the House census oversight committee who now advises groups seeking an accurate 2020 count.

‘VERITABLE SMORGASBORD’

The Supreme Court is reviewing a Jan. 15 by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan, finding that the addition of the citizenship question was illegal and that Ross’ decision to add it was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Oral arguments are scheduled for April 23, with a decision expected by the end of June.

Furman said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross broke a “veritable smorgasbord” of federal rules by including the question, and that enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was a “pretextual” rationale for adding it.

The judge said adding the question would cause many states to lose federal funding, while Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas would lose Congressional seats.

Furman, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, stopped short of a finding that Ross intended to discriminate against immigrants.

The decision came in a lawsuit brought by 18 U.S. states, 15 cities and a variety of civil rights groups.

In urging the Supreme Court to overturn Furman’s ruling, Solicitor General Noel Francisco said Ross had discretion to add the citizenship question, and that there was a “long pedigree” in the census for asking about citizenship or country of birth.

He also said other democracies including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, and the United Kingdom ask about citizenship on their censuses.

Another federal judge, Richard Seeborg in San Francisco, on March 6 also declared the citizenship question illegal.

Following that ruling, the Supreme Court said it will also decide whether Ross’ actions violated the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause, which sets out terms for counting people.

Adding the citizenship question could lead to an undercount of 4.2 million Hispanics alone, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy estimated last month.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, and Nick Brown and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Trott, Meredith Mazzilli, Noeleen Walder and Susan Thomas)

Supreme Court rebuffs anti-abortion activists in Planned Parenthood suit

FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a bid by anti-abortion activists to narrow a Planned Parenthood lawsuit accusing them of illegally recording video of abortion providers to try to falsely show the illicit sale of aborted fetal tissue for profit.

The justices declined to hear an appeal by the activists of a lower court’s refusal to toss out fraud, invasion of privacy and other claims under California law made in the civil lawsuit by Planned Parenthood, a women’s healthcare and abortion provider.

Activist David Daleiden and his group, the Center for Medical Progress, had argued they were exercising their right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution in surreptitiously making the recordings.

Using footage recorded at conferences and other places, the Center for Medical Progress released videos in 2015 purporting to expose Planned Parenthood officials trafficking in aborted fetal parts, sparking controversy, congressional inquiries and investigations in various states.

Planned Parenthood has said the tapes were heavily edited to leave the false impression of wrongdoing.

The federal judge overseeing the case blocked the release of videos in a related matter, concluding there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing captured in the videos. The Supreme Court left that ruling in place last year.

Daleiden and another activist also face criminal charges in California in connection with the videos.

Planned Parenthood sued Daleiden, the California-based Center for Medical Progress and others in 2016, accusing them of conspiracy and wiretapping violations under federal law, as well as claims under California law for fraudulently gaining access to the conferences.

The anti-abortion activists said they were performing investigative journalism and said Planned Parenthood was trying to “silence and punish” them.

The activists claimed they were shielded from the state law claims under another California law requiring dismissal of lawsuits that try to stifle free speech on a public issue, which is a guaranteed right under the state and U.S. constitutions. Laws meant to protect against nuisance suits that stifle free speech, known as known as an “anti-SLAPP” laws, are common in most states.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year rejected their arguments, prompting Daleiden’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court refuses to block Trump’s gun ‘bump stock’ ban

FILE PHOTO: A bump fire stock, (R), that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, U.S., October 4, 2017. REUTERS/George Frey/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a request by gun rights activists to put on hold the Trump administration’s ban on “bump stock” attachments that allow semi-automatic weapons to be fired rapidly, a rare recent instance of gun control at the federal level.

The court in a brief order refused to grant a temporary stay sought by plaintiffs including the group Gun Owners of America in a lawsuit filed in Michigan challenging the ban while litigation continues.

The policy took effect on Tuesday on the same day that Chief Justice John Roberts rejected a similar bid to delay implementation in a separate legal challenge brought in Washington by individual gun owners and gun rights groups including the Firearms Policy Foundation and Florida Carry Inc.

An appeals court previously exempted specific people and groups involved in the Washington case from the ban while that litigation proceeds.

President Donald Trump pledged to ban the devices soon after a gunman used them in an October 2017 shooting spree that killed 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas. The Justice Department on Dec. 18 announced plans to implement the policy.

Bump stocks use a gun’s recoil to bump its trigger, enabling a semiautomatic weapon to fire hundreds of rounds per minute, which can transform it into a machine gun. The Justice Department’s regulation followed the lead of many states and retailers that imposed stricter limits on sales of guns and accessories after a deadly shooting at a Florida high school in February 2018.

In the Michigan case, a federal judge already has ruled in favor of the administration. The Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to put the ban on hold pending appeal. Other plaintiffs in that case include the Gun Owners Foundation, the Virginia Citizens Defense League and three individual gun owners.

In the Washington case, a federal judge also upheld the ban, prompting gun rights advocates to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. That court has heard oral arguments but has not yet ruled.

Those challenging the policy have argued that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) lacks the authority to equate bump stocks with machine guns. One of the laws at the center of the legal dispute was written more than 80 years ago, when Congress restricted access to machine guns during the heyday of American gangsters’ use of “tommy guns.”

Trump’s fellow Republicans typically oppose gun control measures and are protective of the right to bear arms promised in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. In 2017, there were 39,773 gun deaths in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures released in December.

The FBI said in January it had found no clear motive for the 64-year-old Las Vegas gunman, Stephen Paddock, in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

In major religion case, U.S. top court weighs Maryland cross case

Advocates for the separation of church and state participate in a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of oral arguments over whether a concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One in Bladensburg, Maryland, is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday takes up one of the biggest cases of its current term when it weighs whether a cross-shaped war memorial on public land in Maryland is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

The so-called Peace Cross, a 40-foot-tall (12 meters) concrete memorial to 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One, is situated on public land at a busy road intersection in Bladensburg just outside Washington.

Fred Edwords and two other plaintiffs filed a 2014 lawsuit challenging the cross as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

Edwords, who is retired, is a long-time member and previous employee of the American Humanist Association, which advocates for the separation of church and state.

Supporters of the group participated in a small rally in front of the court before the arguments, with some holding signs saying, “Protect the Constitution they fought for,” in reference to military veterans. Supporters of the cross, including members of the American Legion, a private veterans’ group, also gathered outside the building.

The cross was funded privately and built in 1925. The property where it stands was in private hands when it was erected, but it is now on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a governmental agency.

The nine justices on the high court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority, are due to hear a 70-minute oral argument, with a ruling due by the end of June.

The Establishment Clause’s scope is contested, so comments by the justices suggesting a willingness to allow greater government involvement in religious expression will be closely scrutinized.

The cross has the backing of President Donald Trump’s administration and members of the American Legion, who hold memorial events at the site. Veterans and their relatives have said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a Christian cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and hurtful.

Aside from its shape, the cross has no other religious themes or imagery.

The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross was unconstitutional, reversing a Maryland-based federal judge’s decision allowing the monument.

The Supreme Court will hear appeals by the park commission and the American Legion, which is represented by the conservative religious rights group First Liberty Institute.

The Supreme Court has sent mixed messages about parameters for government-approved religious expression, including in two rulings issued on the same day in 2005.

In one, it ruled that a monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building depicting the biblical Ten Commandments did not violate the Constitution. But in the other, it decided that Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses and schools were unlawful.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

War memorial or religious symbol? Cross fight reaches U.S. high court

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

BLADENSBURG, Md. (Reuters) – When Fred Edwords first drove by the 40-foot-tall (12 meters) concrete cross that has stood for nearly a century on a busy intersection in suburban Maryland outside the U.S. capital, his first reaction was, “What is that doing there?”

To Edwords, who believes there should be an impermeable wall separating church and state, the location of the so-called Peace Cross – a memorial to Americans killed in World War One situated on public land, with vehicles buzzing by on all sides – seemed to be a clear governmental endorsement of religion.

“It’s so obviously part of the town and a centerpiece. It just popped out at me. There was nothing about it that made me think it was anything other than a Christian cross,” Edwords, 70, said in an interview.

Edwords and two other plaintiffs filed a 2014 lawsuit challenging the cross as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

The conservative-majority court will hear arguments in the case next Wednesday, with a ruling due by the end of June.

While the Establishment Clause’s scope is a matter of dispute, most Supreme Court experts predict the challenge to the Peace Cross will fail, with the justices potentially setting a new precedent allowing greater government involvement in religious expression.

The Peace Cross, now aging and crumbling a bit, was funded privately and built in Bladensburg in 1925 to honor 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One. The property where it stands was in private hands when it was erected, but later became public land.

Its supporters include President Donald Trump’s administration and members of the American Legion veterans’ group, who hold memorial events at the cross. At a recent gathering at a nearby American Legion post, veterans and their relatives said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a Christian cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and painful.

To Mary Ann Fenwick LaQuay, 80, the cross respectfully chronicles the war sacrifice of her uncle Thomas Notley Fenwick, one of 49 honored.

“It hurts people who have family members there. Every time I go by there, I think of my uncle. It hurts to think people would take it away,” she said.

Stan Shaw, 64, a U.S. Army veteran, said it appeared the challengers were going out of their way to take offense.

“If you don’t want to see it, take another route,” Shaw added.

Aside from its shape, the cross has no other religious themes or imagery. At its base is a barely legible plaque listing the names of the dead. Every year, ceremonies with no religious content are held at the site, lawyers defending the cross said.

Edwords, who is retired, is a long-time member and previous employee of the American Humanist Association, which advocates for the separation of church and state. He and his fellow challengers said they support veterans and that the lawsuit concerns only the symbolism of the cross, not the fact that it honors war dead.

The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross was unconstitutional, reversing a Maryland-based federal judge’s decision allowing the monument.

The Supreme Court will hear appeals by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the public agency that owns the cross, and the American Legion, which is represented by the conservative religious rights group First Liberty Institute.

TEN COMMANDMENTS

The Supreme Court has sent mixed messages about the extent to which there can be government-approved religious expression, including in two rulings issued on the same day in 2005.

In one case, it ruled that a monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building depicting the biblical Ten Commandments did not violate the Constitution. But in the other, it decided that Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses and schools were unlawful.

More recently, the court in 2014 ruled that government entities do not automatically violate the Constitution when they hold a prayer before legislative meetings.

In some other recent cases, the court has taken an expansive view of religious rights. In 2014, it ruled that owners of private companies could object on religious grounds to a federal requirement to provide health insurance that included coverage for women’s birth control.

It ruled in 2017 that churches and other religious entities cannot be flatly denied public money even in states whose constitutions ban such funding. In a narrow 2018 ruling, the court sided with a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his Christian beliefs.

The American Legion’s lawyers are asking the court to decide that government endorsement of religion is not the appropriate test in the Peace Cross case. Instead, they said, courts should conclude that the government violates the Constitution only when it actively coerces people into practicing religion.

Such a ruling would give public officials “carte blanche to have symbols anywhere,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania expert on law and religion who joined a legal brief supporting Edwords.

Edwords conceded that the lawsuit could end up backfiring on his side with a ruling against him but stands by his decision to challenge the cross.

“We are not trying to be revolutionary here,” Edwords said.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)