Justices to Close with Abortion, Gay Rights Cases Court Likely to Be Divided

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Saving some of the hardest cases for last, the Supreme Court winds up its hearings for the term this week by returning to the nation's culture wars over abortion and gay rights.

In two cases with far-reaching social and political implications, the justices will take up their first major abortion case in eight years tomorrow, and on Wednesday they will review a New Jersey case involving the Boy Scouts' ban on homosexual members and leaders.

The abortion case, centering on a Nebraska law that both sides refer to as a "partial-birth" abortion ban, is shaping up as a test of whether the court will cut back on the right to abortion declared by the court in 1973 and kept largely intact in a 1992 decision.

Both sides, in their publicity buildup toward this week's hearing, are suggesting that Roe vs. Wade itself may be at stake -- even though the court indicated when it agreed to hear the Nebraska case that it did not want to listen to arguments about overruling Roe.

The court will be studying a type of law that has become the chosen means by which abortion-rights opponents, in a coordinated, cross-country campaign, seek to gauge the justices' willingness to back away from Roe, if not to scuttle it altogether. Thirty states have such laws, and Congress is moving toward its third attempt to enact the same kind of legislation; its two previous attempts were vetoed by President Clinton.

In the Scouts case, the first significant gay rights dispute the justices have reviewed in four years, the court will consider the claim of one of the nation's mainstream institutions -- an organization that exists in nearly every city and town -- that it has a constitutional right to exclude homosexuals.

Both sides see that case as a defining event in the wide-ranging campaign by gay and lesbian rights advocates to gain acceptance throughout American culture. …