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Court agrees to rule on constitutionality of "hate crime' laws

The Supreme Court says it will decide whether "hate crime" laws, prohibiting cross-burning, displays of swastikas and other offensive activity, violate the constitutional guarantee of free speech. The court said it would decide whether a St. Paul, Minn., teen-ager can be prosecuted under a local hate crime law for burning a cross on the lawn of the only black family in the neighborhood.

The youth, Robert Viktora, now 18, was charged with a misdemeanor for violating a St. Paul ordinance prohibiting the display of symbols designed to arouse "anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed or religion or gender."

Hate crime laws, along with campus speech codes, have become a popular tool in recent years to combat racial and religious bigotry. For example, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia specifically outlaw cross-burning.

The Minnesota case will be the high court's first examination of the constitutionality of such laws. A decision is not expected until next year.

The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected Viktora's argument that the ordinance violates the First Amendment.

"Burning a cross in the yard of an African-American family's home is deplorable conduct that the City of St. Paul may without question prohibit," the court said. "The burning cross is itself an unmistakable symbol of violence and hatred based on virulent notions of racial supremacy."

The Minnesota court distinguished the St. Paul ordinance from a Texas flag-burning law struck down by the Supreme Court in 1989.

Unlike the Texas flag-burning law, the court said, the St. Paul ordinance does not ban all cross burning, but rather "censors only those displays that one knows or should know will create anger, alarm or resentment based on racial, ethnic, gender or religious bias."

In asking the high court to review the case, Viktora's lawyer, Edward Cleary, said "displays of racial, ethnic, religious or gender intolerance reflect varied political viewpoints within our pluralistic society and are not susceptible to constitutionally valid restrictions."

But Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Steven DeCoster said that when "symbolic conduct is designed solely to threaten, terrorize or injure others, it is not protected by the First Amendment."

Among other Supreme Court actions Monday:

AGE BIAS: The court ruled unanimously that workers accusing their bosses of age discrimination may sue in federal court after state agencies have thrown out their claims.

The decision gives Angelo Solimino of Syosset, N.Y., a right to a federal trial in his lawsuit against a savings and loan association he said fired him because he was 63.

Justice David Souter, writing for the court, said barring federal court claims in such cases would violate Congress' intent in passing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The 1967 federal law promotes work-sharing between state and federal agencies investigating age-bias claims. Some claims are heard first by a state agency in those states that have outlawed age discrimination.

HAZARDOUS WASTE: The justices refused to consider letting states close their borders to out-of-state hazardous wastes.

Alabama in 1989 enacted a law that prevents private companies in the state from accepting hazardous waste from sites in states with no waste facilities.

An appeals court declared the law unconstitutional last August, ruling it interferes with interstate commerce and is pre-empted by federal environmental laws.

_ Information from AP was used in this report.