Bible, Billboard Ad Bans Stand

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In a couple of cases Monday, the Supreme Court allowed advertising bans to stand.

The justices, without comment, left intact a Southern California school district's rejection of an advertisement that featured the Ten Commandments on a fence at a high school baseball field.

The action set no legal precedent because it was a denial of review, not a decision.

A Downey, Calif. businessman who wanted to post an ad that included the commandments said the school district's refusal unlawfully discriminated against religious speech and violated religious freedom. But a federal appeals court ruled he was wrong.

The California dispute began when the Downey High School baseball booster club sought to raise money in 1995 by selling advertising space on a 4-foot-high outfield fence.

Edward DiLoreto, chief executive of a local engineering firm, paid $400 for an ad that listed the Ten Commandments after stating, "Meditate on these principles to live by."

After the ad was rejected, DiLoreto sued. But state and federal courts ruled against him.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a decision last November, called the baseball field fence "a forum limited to certain subjects and not open for indiscriminate use by the general public." Therefore, the appeals court said, DiLoreto's free-speech rights had not been violated.

The school district was free to exclude subjects "that would be disruptive to the educational purpose of the school," the appeals court said, noting that a Planned Parenthood ad also had been rejected.

The justices have under study, and are expected to decide by late June, a Texas case asking whether public school districts may allow students to lead football stadium crowds in prayers before high school games.

Also Monday, the justices refused to overturn restrictions on outdoor cigarette advertising in New York City and Chicago.

Without comment, the court turned away advertisers' arguments that a federal law pre-empts cities from imposing their own restrictions.

Chicago's 1997 ordinance bans outdoor cigarette advertising, with exceptions: Such ads are allowed near highways, in some commercial areas, at sports facilities and inside stores that sell cigarettes.

The 1998 New York City law bars such ads within 1,000 feet of any school, playground, day care center or youth center. Also banned is indoor advertising in those areas that can be seen from the street.

The impact of the legal disputes was lessened when tobacco companies took down billboards across the country last year as part of a massive settlement with the states.

But advertising companies said New York City's and Chicago's ordinances go further by also prohibiting cigarette ads at retail stores. The companies said many cities have set varying limits on tobacco ads that are a "significant burden'' on advertisers.

Advertisers sued New York City and Chicago, and in each case a federajudge decided the ordinances were pre-empted by a 1969 federal law that requires health warning labels on cigarette packages and bars broadcast cigarette advertising.

The federal law says states cannot enact any prohibition "based on smoking and health ... with respect to the advertising or promotion of any cigarettes."

Federal appeals courts reversed the trial judges, and said the 1969 federal law lets cities restrict outdoor tobacco ads.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Chicago ordinance merely restricted the location of advertising and therefore was within local police power. Otherwise, the appeals court said, states could not bar tobacco companies from handing out free cigarettes in schoolyards.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a similar ruling in the New York City case. Both appeals courts did invalidate one provision and allowed stores to have a generic sign indicating that they sell cigarettes.

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