From ..................... Associated Press

January 24, 1997

By RICHARD CARELLI ....... AP Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Supreme Court that for the first time in history is not predominantly Protestant is poised to tackle two key religious disputes.

The court lost its Protestant majority last year, when Clarence Thomas left a charismatic Episcopal church and -- after 25 years -- again became an active Roman Catholic.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy also are Catholics. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer are Jewish. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor and David H. Souter belong to Protestant denominations.

Justices rarely discuss their religion in public, but 1996 proved an exceptional year. In addition to Thomas' action, Scalia and Breyer spoke out.

In a series of speeches, Scalia urged fellow Christians to pray for "the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world."

Breyer, addressing a Capitol Hill gathering to commemorate the Holocaust, referred to himself as "a Jew, a judge, a member of the Supreme Court." And he invoked several passages from the Torah.

Do the highest court's decisions reflect the religious scruples of justices themselves?

Two cases, one from New York and the other from Texas, will be argued and decided by July. In each, the court will help define Americans' religious freedom and try to clarify government's relationship with religious institutions.

In the New York case, the court will consider reversing its 12-year-old decision that banned public school teachers from offering remedial help at parochial schools.

A ruling in that case could have an impact on other church-state disputes, such as prayer in public schools and tax breaks for parents who send their children to church-run schools.

The Constitution's First Amendment bars the governmental "establishment of religion." But today's court is less likely than in the past to interpret that clause as requiring the strictest separation of church and state.

The amendment's other mention of religion guarantees its "free exercise" -- people have a right to put their beliefs into practice. The Texas dispute will focus on the sweep of that right.

The justices will judge the validity of a 1993 law aimed at curbing government interference in the spiritual lives of Americans. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act gives more weight to claims that actions taken by government sometimes improperly restrict religious freedom.

A church in Boerne, Texas, invoked the law after the city thwarted its attempt to build an addition. But city officials say Congress unlawfully usurped power from state and local governments and from the Supreme Court itself.

Some are wary of what the justices may say in both cases.

The responsibility for such decisions falls to seven men and two women selected not for their religious scholarship or ardor, but for their legal prowess and political connections.

That may explain the court's varying effectiveness on such questions. Historically, the nine justices struggle mightily with disputes over religion.