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The Supreme Court on Monday refused to expand the rights of church groups, turning down appeals in a pair of cases.
In the first case, the justices declined to hear a free-speech claim from an evangelical minister in Northern California who wanted to hold worship services in a public library meeting room. In the second, they refused to hear a freedom-of-religion claim from Catholic Charities in New York, which objected to a state law requiring that employees' prescription drug coverage include contraceptives. The cases were on a long list dismissed on opening day of the court's term.

In the past, the high court has said public officials may not discriminate against "religious speech" by, for example, excluding a church group from meeting in the evening at a high school auditorium that is open to other community organizations.

Lawyers for the Alliance Defense Fund, the Christian Legal Society and the National Assn. of Evangelicals had urged the court to go a step further and rule that officials may not exclude "religious services" from public buildings. They called it unconstitutional to distinguish between "speech" and "services."

They backed an appeal filed by Pastor Hattie Hopkins, who wanted to hold prayer and worship services in a meeting room in a public library in Antioch, northeast of Oakland.

"Religious worship is not a second-class form of expression that the government may ban from a forum generally open for indistinguishable 'secular' expression," said lawyers for Hopkins and the Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries.

The issue split the federal courts in California. A judge ruled the library must open its meeting room to Hopkins, but a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, 2-1.

The 1st Amendment does not require that the library be "transformed into an occasional house of worship," said Judge Richard A. Paez of Los Angeles, a Clinton appointee. There is a difference between "religious speech" and a "sermon," another judge said.

The full 9th Circuit refused to rehear the case, but seven of its judges filed a dissent. The ruling against Hopkins "turned a blind eye to blatant viewpoint discrimination" by singling out "what it calls 'mere religious worship' for exclusion," wrote Judge Jay S. Bybee, a Bush appointee.

By turning down the appeal, the Supreme Court let stand the 9th Circuit panel's decision.

In the New York case, lawyers for the plaintiff said Catholic Charities should not be forced "to finance conduct that the church teaches is sinful."

Besides New York, more than 20 states (including California) have laws that require employers to include contraceptives in drug coverage. Though churches themselves are exempt from the laws, the exemption does not extend to church-related groups.

"If the state can compel church entities to subsidize contraceptives in violation of their religious beliefs, it can compel them to subsidize abortions as well," the lawyers argued.

The justices turned down a similar challenge to California's prescription-drug law in 2004.

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