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Two sensible distinctions

In unanimous opinions of commendable clarity, the Supreme Court last week gave new definition to two First Amendment issues that had been left murky by previous rulings. Governments that wish to enact bias-crime laws or prohibit unusual religious practices should now have a much better understanding of the constitutional parameters within which they must work.

In one case, the court created a sensible distinction in upholding the constitutionality of Wisconsin's bias-crime law. Last year, the court correctly struck down a local ordinance that made certain expressions of racial or religious intolerance crimes in themselves. Last week, however, the court upheld the constitutionality of state laws that allow for the imposition of longer sentences on convicted criminals who target their victims on the basis of race or religion.

Judges and juries typically consider an array of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in determining the sentence to be imposed on a convicted criminal. The court's embrace of Wisconsin's law simply specifies one more aggravating factor that can be considered.

The precision of the court ruling should ease the concerns of civil libertarians who have feared that the First Amendment would become a casualty of well-meaning efforts to curb a new outbreak of racial and religious intolerance. Chief Justice William Rehnquist's opinion took pains to reiterate last year's judgment that the First Amendment prohibits governments from criminalizing forms of expression _ even those words or thoughts that contain offensively racist or bigoted messages. People are still free to be bigots, but they can expect harsh punishment if they allow their bigotry to drive them to criminal behavior.

In the other case, the court unanimously struck down the city of Hialeah's ban on the Santeria religion's practice of ritual animal sacrifice. This decision, too, hinged on a reasonable distinction:

Laws that apply equally to religious and non-religious practices are constitutional. For example, in 1990, the court refused to exempt members of an American Indian religion from drug laws prohibiting the ingestion of peyote and other hallucinogens in virtually all circumstances. Whether or not one agrees with that decision, it at least allows for the law to be applied equally in religious and non-religious contexts.

However, laws that are specifically intended to suppress a particular religion are unconstitutional. In the Hialeah case, the city attempted to prohibit the Santeria church from engaging in a practice that is deemed legal in other circumstances, such as hunting and food production. Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion concluded that "suppression of the central element of Santeria worship service was the object" of Hialeah's ordinances.

In theory, 5-4 Supreme Court decisions carry every bit as much legal force as those that are rendered unanimously. In practice, though, split decisions of the high court are seldom the final word on complex and controversial issues such as abortion, defendants' rights or freedom of expression. Those on the losing end of those decisions immediately begin looking for new cases to test the strength of the court's consensus.

In upholding Wisconsin's bias-crime law and striking down Hialeah's restrictions on the Santeria church, the Supreme Court has spoken with a single, clear voice on two issues that go to the heart of our freedoms of speech and religion. The court still has more than enough contentious issues that it has yet to resolve, but it has done an admirable job of defining common ground on these two important subjects.