This month, the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in cases involving two divisive social issues: abortion and homosexuality. The justices have scheduled these hearings so that the decisions will be announced this summer, which serves to remind Christians that there are no time-outs in the culture war. The first case, Stenburg v. Carhart, is an appeal of the Eighth Circuit Court decision that struck down Nebraska's ban on partial-birth abortions. This decision raised a conflict with other circuit courts that had sustained the ban in Wisconsin and Virginia, and so has gone to the Supreme Court for a ruling. The second, Boy Scouts v. Dale, is an appeal of a New Jersey Supreme Court's decision that stated the Boy Scouts could not exclude homosexual men as scoutmasters, even though the Scout's Oath requires members to be "morally straight" ("Scouts' Dishonor," CT, Nov. 15 1999, p. 128). The court's finding that the Scouts are a "public accommodation," subject to New Jersey's anti-discrimination statute, was particularly troubling. This definition of public could, in time, include other non-profits and churches, forcing them to hire practicing homosexuals as employees, even clergy.It was no surprise the Supreme Court took these appeals; both raise major constitutional issues. But what has raised eyebrows is the justices' decision to do so on an expedited schedule, as was announced in January. This means the decisions will be handed down just as both political parties head for their national conventions. Why would the court inject these volatile issues—and itself—into the middle of a national election? Perhaps the justices believe that the presidential candidates will be distracted and would hesitate to criticize the Court in a heated campaign, fearing the wrath of gay activists or feminists. Some are speculating that the justices want to act before a new president alters the current majority by his appointments.There is an alarming precedent: Just as the 1992 presidential election was getting underway, the Court agreed to hear the challenge to a Pennsylvania statute involving several abortion restrictions, including parental consent. The Court startled litigants and observers by asking both parties to submit arguments on whether Roe v. Wade should be sustained—an issue neither side had raised.The result was the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision in which the Court reaffirmed Roe, maintaining that abortion is constitutionally protected under the right to determine "one's own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." In addition, the justices lectured prolifers: the issue, they said, was settled; people had come to rely on abortion rights and further appeals were unwelcome.If anything of this sort is behind the Court's timing, it is bad news. But the good news is we don't have to sit idly by. Concerned Christians need, first, to understand what is at stake: for the Court to strike down the ban on partial-birth abortion, for example, would be another example of a non-elected judiciary substituting its moral judgment for that of the people as expressed through elected legislatures. Second, we must pray. Third, we must elevate the level of the public discourse by utilizing the available organs of communication (letters to newspapers, church and civic meetings, even intelligent conversations with neighbors over the back fence); we know that the justices look outside the windows of their marble palace and listen to public opinion.Just three years ago many observers believed that the Court was prepared to find a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide (using the very reasoning of Casey). But there was an uproar from moral conservatives. Disabilities activists also joined the opposition; on the day of oral arguments, groups of these citizens, some riding in wheelchairs and carrying signs that read "We're not dead yet," arrived on the steps of the Court.The demonstration was well-covered in the media and had its effect. Liberal justices grudgingly acknowledged in their opinion that the country wasn't ready for such a step and declined to declare physician-assisted suicide a constitutional right.Whatever the Court decides in these two cases, the justices may have done us a great service. Judging by polls, Christians and other moral conservatives seem more apathetic this year than any election since the 1970s. Perhaps this is the wake-up call we need to revitalize our cultural engagement. These cases illustrate why as Christians and citizens we need to care deeply about political issues. The next president's judicial appointments can either solidify or shift the current Court majority, which—more than any other single public action—can shape the course of American culture for generations.
Charles Colsonurges Christians to pray and fast for some portion of April 25 and 26, when the Supreme Court will hear these cases.
See the Eighth Circuit Court decision on Carhart v. Stenburg, the New Jersey Supreme Court decision on James Dale v. Boy Scouts of America, and the Supreme Court decision on Planned Parenthood v. Casey.Past ChristianityToday.com articles on these upcoming decisions include:Scouts Defend Homosexuality Policy | Supreme Court scheduled to hear case in April (Mar. 14, 2000)Colson: Scout's Dishonor | The judge told the Scouts just what their oath meant—and didn't mean. (Nov. 2, 1999)Partial-birth Abortion Ban May Go to Supreme Court | Differing appeals court rulings increases chances of forthcoming decision (Nov. 11, 2000)
Charles Colson's earlier columns include:
- The Ugly Side of Tolerance, March 2, 2000
- Things We Ought to Know, January 3, 2000
- Scout's Dishonor, November 15, 1999
- What Are We Doing Here?, October 4, 1999
- How Evil Became Cool, August 9, 1999
- Does Kosovo Pass the Just-War Test?, May 24, 1999
- Why We Should Be Hopeful, April 26, 1999
- Moral Education After Monica, March 1, 1999
- The Sky Isn't Falling, January 11, 1999
- Poster Boy for Postmodernism, November 16, 1998
- Evangelicals Are Not an Interest Group, October 5, 1998
- The Devil in the DNA, August 10, 1998
- The Oxford Prophet, June 15, 1998
- Why Fidelity Matters, April 27, 1998
- Do We Love Coke More Than Justice?, March 2, 1998
- Madison Avenue's Spiritual Chic, January 12, 1998
- Colson Archives
Colson's daily radio program, Breakpoint, is also available online.
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