US high court to take up Israel’s capital, gay unions

US high court to take up Israel’s capital, gay unions

New Supreme Court term could bring changes for Americans born in Jerusalem and same-sex couples

People wait in line to enter the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci/File)
People wait in line to enter the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci/File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Recognition of Israel’s capital will be one of the key questions slated to be taken up by the US Supreme Court in its new term, which opens Monday.

The high court will hear the case of an American born in Jerusalem who wants his passport to list his birthplace as Israel. The case underlies a major dispute between Congress and the president, with Middle Eastern politics as the backdrop.

The United States has never recognized any nation’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, believing the city’s status should be resolved in peace negotiations. The administration says a 2002 law passed by Congress allowing Israel to be listed as the birthplace of Jerusalem-born Americans would in essence be seen as a US endorsement of Israeli control of the city.

The Supreme Court term is starting with a lack of headline-grabbing cases, but may end with a blockbuster that helps define the legacy of the court under Chief Justice John Roberts.

While same-sex marriage is not yet on their agenda, the justices appear likely to take on the issue and decide once and for all whether gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry.

When the justices formally open their new term Monday, Roberts will be beginning his 10th year at the head of the court, and the fifth with the same lineup of justices. He has been part of a five-justice conservative majority that has rolled back campaign finance limits, upheld abortion restrictions and generally been skeptical of the consideration of race in public life.

But his court has taken a different path in cases involving gay and lesbian Americans, despite his opposition most of the time.

Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of President George W. Bush, surprised many in voting to uphold President Obama's Affordable Care Act. (photo credit: United States Supreme Court/JTA)
Chief Justice John Roberts. (photo credit: United States Supreme Court/JTA)

The court’s record on gay rights is comparable to its embrace of civil rights for African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s under Chief Justice Earl Warren, said University of Chicago law professor David Strauss. “The court will go down in history as one that was on the frontiers of establishing rights for gays and lesbians,” Strauss said.

The justices passed up their first opportunity last week to add gay marriage cases to their calendar. But they will have several more chances in the coming weeks to accept appeals from officials in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin who are trying to preserve their state bans on same-sex marriage.

Those prohibitions fell one after the other following the high court’s June 2013 decision that struck down part of a federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

On the court’s plate in the new term are cases involving:

—religious, employment and housing discrimination.

—the drawing of political districts in Alabama and Arizona.

—a faulty traffic stop over a car’s broken brake light in North Carolina.

—the prosecution of a self-styled rapper whose Facebook postings threatened his estranged wife, an FBI agent and area schools.

Monday’s argument involves the North Carolina traffic stop that led to the discovery of cocaine in Nicholas Heien’s Ford Escort. A police officer pulled over the car when he saw the right brake light wasn’t working, although the left one was. Typically, evidence found in a car pulled over for a valid reason can be used against a defendant. But North Carolina’s quirky traffic laws mandate that only one brake light on a car be working.

The case tests whether the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law makes the traffic stop unreasonable and the ensuing search a violation of Heien’s constitutional rights. Among Heien’s arguments is that citizens can’t plead ignorance of the law when they are charged with a crime, so there shouldn’t be a double standard for the police. A divided state Supreme Court said the mistake was reasonable enough to justify the routine traffic stop.

On Tuesday, the justices will take up the case of Arkansas prison inmate Gregory Holt, who says his Muslim beliefs require him to grow a half-inch (1.25-centimeter) beard. Arkansas prison officials permit no beards, with the exception of inmates with certain skin conditions, who can have beards a quarter-inch (0.6-centimeters) long.

Prison officials say their rule is a matter of security because beards can be used to hide prohibited items, and 18 states are backing the state’s argument. But groups across the political spectrum and the Obama administration say Holt has a right to grow a beard under a federal law aimed at protecting prisoners’ religious rights. More than 40 states already allow beards, with little evidence that inmates have tried to hide prohibited items in them.

Last term, the court bitterly divided over the religious rights of family-owned corporations that objected to paying for women’s contraceptives under President Barack Obama’s health care law. This case appears likely to unite the court, said University of Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett. “I think there’s every reason to expect agreement among the justices that Arkansas hasn’t even come close to satisfying the burden,” Garnett said.

In another religious discrimination case, retailer Abercrombie and Fitch is defending its denial of a job to a woman wearing a Muslim headscarf by arguing that she did not say during her interview that she wears the hijab for religious reasons.

The court’s calendar also includes a foray into the online world. Anthony Elonis of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is challenging his conviction for using Facebook to post threats of violence. The issue in Elonis’ case is whether he had to intend to make the threats. The government argues that the proper measure is whether a reasonable person would feel threatened.

Elonis said his online postings should be considered speech that is protected by the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speech, and that he used the forum to vent his frustration over a series of events that included the loss of his job and the breakup of his marriage.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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