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Supreme Court returns to hot-button issues in 'year of the sequel'

The U.S. Supreme Court term that begins Monday brings a return of hot-button issues that have divided the justices along ideological lines, including the proper place for prayer in government settings, the latitude states should have in restricting access to abortion, and the influence of big money in politics.

"This is the year of the sequel," says Kannon Shanmugam, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who argues before the court.

For the first time in 30 years, the Supreme Court will decide whether starting government meetings with a prayer violates the Constitution when the message is almost exclusively Christian.

Two women, one Jewish and the other atheist, filed a lawsuit claiming that the practice of the Town Board of Greece, N.Y., to start its meetings with a Christian prayer, amounted to government endorsement of a single faith.

Adam Fenster / Reuters file

Town supervisor John Auberger sits during a board meeting at the Town Hall in Greece, N.Y., on Aug. 20, 2013. The Supreme Court soon will take up the case of the Town of Greece v. Galloway, concerning use of public prayers before town meetings and whether it violates the Constitution.

"I don't think you should have to endure religious indoctrination in order to participate in your own town government," says Linda Stephens, one of the challengers.

But Town Supervisor John Auberger says the practice has long been upheld by the courts.  "We have a rich tradition, back to our founding fathers, of opening legislative meetings with a prayer."

In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that the Nebraska state legislature did not violate the Constitution by opening its sessions with a prayer from a Presbyterian minister who was paid to act as the official chaplain. But in other cases, the court has held that governments cannot appear to endorse a particular religious view.

"It's constitutional because there's a history, not because there's a good argument for it," says Washington, D.C., lawyer Paul Clement, a former solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration.

Related: 'Under God' likely to remain in pledge despite latest challenge, attorney says

The justices will also hear a challenge to a statewide ban imposed by voters in Michigan on affirmative action in university admissions. In 2006, 58 percent of Michigan voters approved an amendment to the state constitution, specifying that colleges in the state "shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin."

Opponents of the ban say it's unconstitutional for the state to prevent only minorities from seeking preferences in school admissions.

A student wishing to change a school's policy on, for example, giving a preference to athletes can make the case to the college trustees. But anyone seeking to bring back preferences based on race has a much higher burden -- amending the state constitution.

Says Mark Rosenbaum of the ACLU, "They set up a separate system, an entirely different political process, that would make these sorts of judgments."

The court will plunge this term back into the issue of money in politics. Republicans are challenging the limits on the amount of money any person can contribute, in total, to all federal political candidates or party committees put together.

While individual contributors can give no more than $2,600 to any single candidate in each election, a separate provision of the law sets an individual's limit at $48,600 for total contributions to all federal candidates in a two-year period.

"This is about free speech for every American. We should be able to donate to as many as candidates as we choose," says Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, whose lawsuit is at the heart of the challenge.

But defenders of the limits say they help prevent corruption. "If you take away the aggregate limits in this case, you will establish a system of legalized bribery like we used to have before the Watergate scandals," says Fred Wertheimer, a longtime proponent of federal regulation of contributions.

Related: In case after case, big wins for big business last year at the Supreme Court

The justices have also agreed to hear their first abortion case in seven years, a challenge to an Oklahoma law that limits the use of drugs prescribed for early-term medical abortions. The state denies that the law -- passed in 2011 but prevented by lower courts from going into effect -- was intended to ban medical abortions. But opponents of the law say that would be its effect.

To resolve a question about the meaning of the state law, the justices put the case on hold, asking Oklahoma's supreme court to clarify its purpose and effect. Depending on how long it takes to get an answer, the case may not be heard this term.

It's not often that the Supreme Court is called upon to referee a dispute with no legal precedents to guide it, but one case this term puts the justices in just that position. The issue is the power the Constitution gives a president "to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate."

President Barack Obama invoked that recess appointment power a year ago during the congressional Christmas break to fill vacancies that Senate Republicans refused to act on -- filling three spots on the National Labor Relations Board and appointing Richard Cordray to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

But a federal appeals court in Washington ruled that the power can be used only between the end of one session of Congress and the beginning of another, not during a congressional break, and only to fill spots that become vacant during those recesses.

Presidents of both parties have made more than 300 recess appointments. Thurgood Marshall, Earl Warren, and William Brennan were initially placed on the Supreme Court that way before being confirmed.

The court also seems certain to take up lawsuits over a part of the Obama health care law.  Some companies say being forced to provide insurance coverage for contraceptive care violates their religious beliefs. The federal appeals courts are divided on whether a claim of religious freedom can be asserted by a for-profit company or whether that is strictly an individual right.

And the justices may take up a privacy battle over how much authority police have to rummage through the contents of smartphones from people they arrest.

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