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High Court Rules on Campaign Ads, Free Speech

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High Court Rules on Campaign Ads, Free Speech

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The U.S. Supreme Court is seen June 12 in Washington, DC. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

The Supreme Court issued a series of rulings on Monday, deciding on issues as wide ranging as campaign advertising and free speech to separation of church and state and the environment.

The court said ordinary taxpayers cannot challenge a White House initiative that helps religious charities get a share of federal money. In separate cases, the justices also invalidated a key provision of a campaign finance law, sided in favor of a high school principal against a student over a free speech issue and ruled against environmental groups, who said the government is not doing enough to protect endangered species.

The court issued a 5-to-4 decision blocking a lawsuit by a group of atheists and agnostics against eight Bush administration officials, including the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The group had objected to government conferences in which administration officials encourage religious charities to apply for federal grants.

The majority ruled that the taxpayers had tried to "set out a parade of horribles that they claim could occur," unless the initiative was stopped — adding that none of those things had, in fact, occurred.

On campaign finance, the court relaxed some restrictions it had upheld in 2003, allowing corporations and unions to get back into election campaigning in a way they have not been able to since the McCain-Feingold law took effect five years ago.

The 5-to-4 ruling weakens a provision of the law that prohibits corporations and unions from financing television and radio advertisements near the time of federal elections, if those ads identify any of the candidates.

The provision had been challenged by Wisconsin Right to Life. The group had wanted to run ads attacking Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) on his stand against confirming conservative judges. At the time, Feingold was running for reelection and the ads were financed partly with corporate money.

In another decision, the court tightened limits on student speech, ruling against a student who held a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at an event in Juneau, Alaska. The 5-4 ruling sided with the school principal, who said the banner advocated drug use.

The student, now 23, sought damages, saying he dropped out of college after his father lost his job over the incident. A jury recently awarded Frank Frederick $200,000 in a lawsuit he filed over his firing.

Writing for the five member majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, "Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one."

The justices also sided with the Bush administration and developers in an environmental case in a 5-to-4 ruling against environmental groups. The case involves the intersection of two laws — the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

A lower court had ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency did not do enough to protect endangered species when it gave states the authority to issue water pollution permits for new construction.

Writing for the conservative, five-justice majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the Endangered Species Act takes a back seat to the Clean Water Act in these instances.

Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens called that position "fundamentally inconsistent with the Endangered Species Act."

Environmental groups believe the decision guts part of the law protecting endangered species.

Meanwhile, the court put off a ruling related to the Enron scandal. The high court took no action in a securities fraud case with billions of dollars at stake for victimized investors.

Houston-based Enron went bankrupt in 2001 when its stock collapsed. The case asks whether Enron shareholders can pursue a lawsuit against Wall Street investment banks that did business with the Texas energy company.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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