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Court eases limits on campaign ads, shields faith plan

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court handed President Bush and the Republican Party two victories yesterday by clearing the way for corporate-funded broadcast ads before elections and by shielding the White House's "faith-based initiative" from challenge in the courts.

Both came in 5-4 rulings by the conservative majority led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The first decision will allow corporate and union money to play a bigger role in political campaigns.

Five years ago, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold Act, part of which banned pre-election ads that mention a candidate's name if they were paid for with corporate or union money. Yesterday's ruling went most of the way toward striking down that ban.

The ads involve "core political speech" that is protected by the First Amendment, Roberts said. "We give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship."

While labor unions and their Democratic allies also will benefit from the ruling, Republicans and business interests led the challenge to the McCain-Feingold Act and its restrictions on pre-election broadcast ads.

The second ruling will allow more federal money to flow to church groups and religious organizations that do charitable work or provide social services. Bush set up a special office in the White House to give seminars for "faith-based" groups to show them how to apply for federal government grants.

A small Wisconsin group of atheists and agnostics sued to challenge the program as unconstitutional because, they argued, it amounted to government promotion of religion. But the Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit and said ordinary taxpayers do not have legal "standing" to challenge such a program.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. - who, like Roberts, was appointed by Bush - stressed that this program amounted only to officials giving speeches. It might be different, he said, if Congress had appropriated money to be funneled directly to churches or religious activities.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined with Roberts and Alito in both decisions.

Bush hailed the decision upholding his faith initiative, calling it a "win for the thousands of community and faith-based nonprofits all across the country that have partnered with the government at all levels to serve their neighbors."

A leading advocate of church-state separation called the decision disappointing but narrow.

"Taxpayers should be allowed to challenge public funding of religion, whether the money is allocated by Congress or the White House," said Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The impact of the McCain-Feingold ruling is likely to be seen and felt by TV viewers and radio listeners starting early next year. It could mean a return to the 1990s when pre-election ads urged the public to "send a message" to candidate John Doe about his stand on a certain issue.

These "issue ads" were a way for corporations and unions to get around laws that barred them from funneling money into election campaigns.

In the 1990s, these groups discovered they could give large contributions to political parties and pay for broadcast ads that could sway key election races. The McCain-Feingold Act sought to close both of these loopholes. It prohibited "soft money" - donations made to political parties rather than directly to candidates - and it banned corporate and union-funded ads that mention a candidate and are broadcast 60 days before a general election or 30 days before the primary.

The Republican National Committee strongly opposed the measure. Bush reluctantly signed it into law but questioned its constitutionality. Its opponents crossed the ideological spectrum and included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Before the 2004 elections, the court upheld the law by a 5-4 vote, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the majority.

In yesterday's ruling, the court reversed course, with Alito casting the deciding vote. The ban on soft money was not challenged, but the broadcast ban was badly undercut.

Roberts said broadcast ads that stop short of urging the public to support or defeat a candidate are legal. "The First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech than suppressing it," he said.

But Justice David H. Souter and the dissenters saw a threat to democracy from the huge amounts of money flowing into politics. "The ban on contributions will mean nothing much, now that companies and unions can save candidates the expense of advertising directly," Souter said.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Other rulings

School principals may punish students for holding up signs that favor the use of illegal drugs, the Supreme Court said in a narrow decision limiting students' free-speech rights. The 5-4 ruling rejects a First Amendment claim from a former high school student in Juneau, Alaska, who was suspended for unfurling a banner outside school that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." He later sued the principal, contending that she had violated his First Amendment rights, and a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled in his favor. The justices sided with the principal yesterday but stressed that they would have come to a different conclusion had the banner carried a political or social message.

The court ruled 5-4 for homebuilders and the Environmental Protection Agency in a case that involved the intersection of two environmental laws, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the endangered species law takes a back seat to the clean water law when it comes to the EPA handing authority to a state to issue water pollution permits. Developers often need such permits before they can begin building.

[From wire reports]

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