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Supreme Court Rulings

June 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings in several closely watched cases having to do with the separation of church and state, what constitutes a legal search in a criminal investigation, and whether American immigration law can have different standards for men and women. Here to walk us through today’s opinions is Marcia Coyle, Supreme Court correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the “National Law Journal.” NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg is on maternity leave. First case, Good News Club versus Milford Central School District. Good News Club is a evangelical Christian education group for primary aged children. Why were they suing Milford School District?

MARCIA COYLE: Milford Central School District is in upstate New York. They established a policy so that residents of the district could use the school’s elementary and high school building after hours for certain educational, cultural, civic purposes. But the school district did have a restriction on the use of the buildings. It would not allow the building to be used for religious purposes. And I think also it had a restriction on political purposes.

The Good News Club wanted to use the building after hours. It’s a small club. It claimed that it fit the school district’s policy, but the school district, when it evaluated what actually happened in the Good News Club meetings, felt that the activity really amounted to religious worship and so it ran afoul of the restriction on religious purposes. The Good News Club sued the school district saying that the denial of the access to its buildings really amounted to a violation of the club’s first amendment speech rights. The school district in effect, the club claimed, was discriminating on the basis of viewpoint; here, the religious viewpoint.

The school district said, ‘Well, we don’t allow any other organization to use the school for religious purposes, so we aren’t discriminating on the basis of viewpoint. And if we let the club use the school building, we ourselves might run afoul of the establishment clause, which prohibits government endorsement or accommodation of religion, and allowing the club to meet on the school premises would appear to be endorsing what the club was espousing in its meetings.’

RAY SUAREZ: What did the justices decide?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the justices… It was a split decision. And the paneling majority was led by justice Clarence Thomas. They essentially agreed with the Good News Club. Justice Thomas said really there’s no logical distinction between the club’s invocation of Christianity when it’s trying to teach its members, its children moral and character development, and the invocation of patriotism, team spirit, loyalty that the Boy Scouts and other organizations that meet at the school use. So, here the court felt there was viewpoint discrimination and that was impermissible.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, there have been a lot of cases of this kind — most recently the Ten Commandments ruling involving Elkhart, Indiana. But they’ve involved prayers at football games, the use of catholic school facilities by public school children in New York, and many others. How does this one fit in to these questions that the justices seem to be wrestling with so often?

MARCIA COYLE: These are among the toughest cases for the court. That’s reflected in how closely divided they are. But there was handwriting on the wall, I think, in this particular case. The court in just the last five years had two cases involving the use of school facilities. One, again, in a New York school district, involved an organization that wanted to show family life films with a religious perspective after hours. And the court found that the district’s refusal to let that group meet was viewpoint discrimination.

And then more recently they had a case involving the University of Virginia, which refused to give student funds to a student publication that had articles in it from a religious perspective. And the court said that that was viewpoint discrimination. So in a way the court has been consistent here, but these cases really turn on the facts. They require the justices to sift through what exactly was going on here.

RAY SUAREZ: So it doesn’t change the landscape often after one of these cases? If you ask the lawyers what it means they’ll say, well, it all depends on the next case. Let’s say this is the next case.

MARCIA COYLE: Right. It may well depend on the next case. But I think it’s fair to say that in the Rehnquist court, you have a court more than any other court I think in modern times that views government accommodation of religion, and here the government was the school district, more favorably and is willing to go a lot farther, whereas the dissenters, the more liberal justices on the court, still see a fairly high wall between church and state. And that may bode well for the Bush administration if it does get its so-called faith-based initiatives off the ground and if they’re challenged. They may find a more receptive court here.

RAY SUAREZ: Next case. Kyllo versus the United States. How did this end up in the high court?

MARCIA COYLE: This is a very interesting and timely case. Federal agents suspected that Danny Kyllo, who lived in Oregon, was growing marijuana inside his home. They used what is known as a thermal imaging device one night to see if there were elevated heat patterns coming from his home. They found that there was high level of heat coming off the roof of his garage and an outside wall of his home. They used that information to get…and other information to get a search warrant, went to his house, found I think over 100 marijuana plants growing in it. And he was brought up on charges.

He tried to suppress the evidence by saying that the use of thermal imaging devices really constitutes a search and an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. So the question for the court, the Supreme Court, was pretty simple on its face. And that is, whether this device is a search. The court gives very high protection to the privacy of the home. Really, the Fourth Amendment gives high protection to it.

The court has said that at the core of the Fourth Amendment is the right of the individual to retreat inside his or her home free from unreasonable searches by the government. And with very few exceptions, the court has found that searches without a warrant of the home are unreasonable.Danny Kyllo lost in the lower courts, so he was bringing his appeal to the Supreme Court, and the court sided with Danny Kyllo in this case. Justice Scalia, one of the more conservative members of the court wrote the majority opinion. Again it was a split court, 5-4.

Justice Scalia was concerned here not just with the facts of this case, but he appeared very concerned with what was down the road in terms of the Fourth Amendment and modern technology. He saw that there were devices on the drafting board that would allow you to actually look through the walls of the home. So in this particular case, he felt that the Fourth Amendment created a firm line that stops at the entrance to the home, and he crafted…he and the majority crafted a rule for police that essentially says: If you use any sense-enhancing technology to get information that otherwise you could not obtain except to actually walk into a house, that is a search under the Fourth Amendment and it’s per se unreasonable, at least if that technology is not in general public use.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Fourth Amendment cases have also been before the Rehnquist court quite a bit.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, especially this term.

RAY SUAREZ: How did this one go for the defendant instead of for the law enforcement agency?

MARCIA COYLE: I think overall the court could be considered a pro law enforcement court. It’s not easy to win fourth amendment cases if you’re a criminal defendant. More recently the court seems concerned about police going a little too far. We’ve had cases about police squeezing luggage in an open bus rack and whether that was allowed and the court found for the defendant in a case like that.

This case, I think, because it came out 5-4 and it involved modern technology is a little hard to fit into any category. This was a new animal in a way for the court. The dissent was quite upset that the court went…that the majority went ahead and wrote a fairly broad rule for police in using modern technology. They felt the court ought to just stick with the facts. They also felt that this was not a search, that this was just collecting data, the heat that was already outside the building.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, in our last case we’re going to have to cut to the chase quickly. Nguyen and Boulais versus the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

MARCIA COYLE: This has to do with gender discrimination. The federal law on immigration treats American mothers and fathers differently when it comes to conferring citizenship on children born out of wedlock abroad. If it’s an American mother, the only thing she has to do is, one, give birth and have lived in the United States for at least a year. And if it’s an American father though, he has to go through one of three steps before the child reaches the age of 18 in order to get citizenship.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Boulais said, basically, ‘This is unfair. My son should have been a citizen just the way the son of an American mother would be.’

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, he did. Exactly. The court again in a 5-4 opinion felt that the federal laws were reasonable. It was discrimination because the mothers and fathers are treated differently on the basis of gender. But the court felt that the objectives behind the law were reasonable and that the distinction here held up under the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

RAY SUAREZ: So they agreed with Mr. Boulais’ allegation that there was a different treatment of men and women in this law but it just wasn’t important?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. Yes. That’s right. I mean, the different treatment is obvious from the different requirements. But it didn’t amount to a violation of the equal protection clause. They felt that Congress’s objectives and by the way, Congress has a lot of power in terms of deciding who gets citizenship and the court often defers to Congress in this particular area. But that those objectives which were to be sure there was a biological relationship between the father and the child and also to assure that there was an opportunity to develop a parental relationship were well served by the law’s requirements.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure. Thank you.