Jun 16, 2014

Court says law barring false election ads can be challenged




NATIONAL


(CNS file photo)

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Supreme Court June 16 said the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life political advocacy group, can sue the state of Ohio over a law that bars false statements about candidates during election campaigns.

The same day, the court declined to take up the challenge of a federal court ruling that said a public high school in Wisconsin should not be holding graduation ceremonies in a church.

The actions came as the court's 2013 term comes to a close, likely by the end of June. Still pending was a ruling in a pair of cases brought by for-profit companies citing religious objections to provisions of the Affordable Care Act that require employers to provide coverage for contraceptives in employee health care plans.

In the Ohio case, the court ruled unanimously that the lawsuit by the Susan B. Anthony List could proceed, because there's a likelihood the legal challenge to the election law will succeed. The opinion said the organization does not have to wait until it is prosecuted under the law to challenge it on a First Amendment basis.

The case arose during the 2010 election cycle when then-Rep. Steve Driehaus filed a complaint with the state elections commission over billboard ads that the Susan B. Anthony List planned to run. The ads said Driehaus supported taxpayer-financed abortions because he voted in Congress for the Affordable Care Act.

Driehaus, a Democrat who opposes abortion, said the ads misrepresented the facts and therefore violated the law's prohibition on false speech. The ad campaign never ran because the owner of the billboards declined to post them out of a fear of being sued.

Lower courts had said the Susan B. Anthony List lacked the legal standing to challenge the law, because it had never been prosecuted under the law. Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed, saying the organization showed there was substantial threat that it would be prosecuted and therefore it could proceed with a challenge to the law's constitutionality.

In the Wisconsin case, the court declined to consider the appeal of a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said the Elmbrook School District is barred from holding graduation ceremonies in a church.

In an unusual written dissent to the court decision not to take the case, Justice Antonin Scalia said the court should have taken the case or sent it back to the 7th Circuit, with orders to reconsider it in light of the Supreme Court's May ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In that opinion, the court found it does not violate the U.S. Constitution for the New York town to open municipal meetings with a prayer.

Scalia was joined in the dissent by Thomas.

Scalia said such ceremonies have long been held in churches for the sake of convenience. He likened the offense some might feel because religious symbols would be visible during graduation ceremonies to the annoyance he feels about music being played loudly in public, especially "when the intrusion on my inner peace occurs while I am a part of a captive audience, as on a municipal bus or in the waiting room of a public agency."