High court moves into uncharted church-state territory

The United States Supreme Court is moving in an unprecedented direction by accepting a large number of cases involving religious and ethical questions. A new key issue that is surfacing is the role of the federal government in church-related matters and in so-called life-and-death decisions that up to now have been largely left to families.

Yesterday, the justices added three religion-related and ethics-focused cases to next year's docket. Among the issues:

What should be the role of the federal government in investigating and regulating medical treatment of babies diagnosed as having severe birth defects?

Is it lawful for state welfare officials to cut off benefits to those who refuse to supply a social security number for religious reasons?

May federal authorities ban the wearing of religious garments by on-duty military personnel?

In recent years, the court has tended to shy away from such cases, relying mainly on landmark decisions of a decade or more ago to reinforce the doctrine of separation of church and state. Last year, however, the high tribunal did introduce a new concept of religious ``accommodation'' in upholding the right of communities to erect Christmas displays on public property.

Two weeks ago, the court voted against ``moment of silence'' laws that set aside quiet time in public schools specifically for purposes of prayer. But in so doing, the justices opened the door for such observances in states where the law doesn't specify that the time be devoted to prayer or meditation.

Decisions are due anytime now on the key issue of public aid to parochial schools, as well as on whether employees may be required to work on their sabbaths.

In addition, in a significant action, the court voted 5 to 4 to allow the Reagan administration to argue on behalf of allowing public school students to meet outside of class, but on school property, for prayer and religious worship.

In connection with this case, civil libertarians and others who oppose school prayer are challenging the ``equal access'' law, passed by Congress last year. They say it has cracked the door to a type of school prayer which the Constitution and the courts have forbidden.

A federal appeals court in Pennsylvania had banned high school students from holding twice-weekly prayer meetings during a period that nonreligious student meetings are permitted. But US Justice Department lawyers now want the Supreme Court to overrule that action.

The ``Baby Doe'' case, which the court has agreed to tackle next year, opens up a new area for the justices. The broad issue is government oversight of medical treatment of children. Specifically, the high tribunal has agreed to study a New York State ruling that blocked Reagan administration efforts to monitor treatment of infants diagnosed as having severe birth defects.

Under a congressional law passed last year, states that do not follow federal reporting procedures for the treatment of infants will be penalized by having federal funds for state child-abuse agencies withdrawn.

In 1982, the federal Department of Health and Human Services, strongly prodded by President Reagan, issued regulations aimed at forcing doctors and hospitals to provide medical treatment to severely deformed babies in cases in which parents choose to withhold it. These rules were invalidated as unconstitutional by a federal trial judge. But they were later rewritten and reinstated. And the Justice Department then invoked them against a New York couple who decided against surgery for their infant daughter, known as ``Baby Jane Doe.''

When government officials sought the infant's medical records, however, they were denied them by a US appeals court.

In another case to be heard next fall, the Supreme Court will hear an appeal of a former Air Force captain who says his religious freedom was violated when he was barred from wearing a Jewish skullcap (yarmulka) at a California military base. The justices will also decide whether Pennsylvania officials may deny welfare benefits to an American Indian who refuses to supply a social security number for his four-year-old daughter on religious grounds.

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