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Balancing free-speech and church-state issues

By CURTIS J. SITOMER / March 24, 1988



BOTH sides of the First Amendment coin - free speech and separation of church and state - come into play in the newest controversies over the Reagan administration's so-called ``morality'' agenda. The free-speech side deals with the government's right to limit federal aid to groups that dispense information on abortion. And the church-state side focuses on congressional authority to provide funds for organizations, including religious groups, that teach morality and chastity to teens.

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Those challenging these moves say the former violates First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression. And the latter, they insist, is in conflict with the First Amendment's planks on separation of church and state. Underlying these controversies is the longtime commitment of the White House to win enactment of laws that promote a religious point of view. So far, President Reagan has failed in his efforts to outlaw, or at least limit, abortion either through the courts or Congress. School prayer proposals and direct public aid to parochial education have also fallen short of the necessary legislative or judicial support.

With Mr. Reagan's term ending in 10 months, religious fundamentalists and others who have supported this agenda express concern that it may already be lost.

A federal judge in Boston recently blocked the application of new regulations by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that would have banned abortion counseling at federally funded family planning clinics.

US District Judge Walter J. Skinner cited the First Amendment in ruling that the administration's rules ``are specifically designed to suppress speech, and particularly directed at the suppression of one viewpoint.''

Another federal judge, in Denver, District Judge Zita Weinshienk, earlier issued a temporary restraining order against the HHS regulations, saying they violate free-expression guarantees of women and physicians.

Government officials have not yet decided whether to appeal the Skinner ruling - which broadly blocks enforcement of these rules anywhere in the United States. If they do, the next rung up the judicial ladder would be the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

A Supreme Court airing seems almost certain. But unless the justices take this case on a priority basis this spring, a high-court hearing would likely not come before next fall - with a ruling possibly delayed until after the November presidential elections.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will hear a case March 30 that challenges the Adolescent Family Life Act of 1981, which allows, among other things, federal grants to religious organizations that teach sexual morality. This aspect of the law is seen by many church groups and religious lobbies as a violation of First Amendment religious protections.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed jointly by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs states: ``Congress is paying religious organizations to promote their religious doctrines because they happen to coincide with government policy.''

This argument goes on to say that ``this daring attempt to use religious education to accomplish the secular goals of government must not be allowed.''

Administration backers, on the other hand, contend that Congress passed the Adolescent Family Life Act to combat teen-age pregnancy, and thus the courts have no right to invalidate this legislation.

A Thursday column