WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, its conservative majority in charge, dealt a severe blow Thursday to the political power wielded by blacks and Latinos, ruling that the government may not use race as a primary reason for drawing election district boundaries.
The 5-4 ruling in a Georgia case threatens many, if not all, of the districts drawn in the last decade for the purpose of electing more minority representatives to Congress, state legislatures and county boards. It highlighted the final day of a term in which the conservative court moved dramatically to curtail the use of race in a way that benefits minorities.
In other rulings Thursday, the high court:
* Gave Christian activists two victories, ruling that the government may not deny funding or free-speech protection to any group because its message is explicitly religious.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court said the University of Virginia must subsidize a magazine run by Christian students on the same basis as other student publications, while by a 7-2 vote it said that Ohio state officials were wrong to bar the Ku Klux Klan from erecting a cross in a park near the Capitol.
* Upheld a broad federal regulation that allows officials to block development on land where endangered animals live. The 6-3 ruling turned back a challenge from the timber industry, which maintained that the Endangered Species Act of 1973 as originally written did not cover private property.
Like the ruling two weeks ago undercutting federal affirmative action programs, the justices insisted Thursday that the Constitution requires the government to "cleanse" itself of using race as a basis for making decisions, whether it is putting persons on juries, awarding government contracts or drawing electoral boundaries.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 seeks to give all Americans "an equal opportunity to gain public office regardless of race," wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the court. "That end is neither assured nor well served, however, by carving electorates into racial blocs," he said.
President Clinton said that he was "disappointed" in the court's ruling on voting rights and called it "a setback in the struggle to ensure that all Americans participate fully in the electoral process."
Unquestionably, the strict ban on the use of race as a basis for drawing election boundaries marks a decided change in the law and one that is likely to work to the disadvantage of minorities. For the last 15 years, the Justice Department has used the Voting Rights Act to press states, counties and cities to do their best to create districts that will elect black and Latino candidates.
Until 1990, not a single African American was elected to Congress during this century from Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana or Virginia, all states with substantial black populations.
But after the 1990 census, the states redrew their electoral boundaries, and the number of black representatives in Congress doubled to 39. All but three of those representatives come from districts with black majorities, however.
Now, under Thursday's ruling, white voters can file lawsuits to challenge those race-based districts as unconstitutional.
In one sense, the change in direction on voting rights comes as no surprise.
Two years ago, the court, by the same 5-4 vote, revived a white voter's challenge to a snake-like district in North Carolina and said that extreme "racial gerrymandering" may be unconstitutional.
That ruling, in Shaw vs. Reno, set off a backlash across the South. Lawsuits were filed challenging majority-black districts in most states, and federal judges declared unconstitutional the congressional boundaries in Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.
But it was unclear whether the court meant to outlaw only "bizarre"-looking districts or all those that were drawn mainly for racial reasons.
Intent at Issue
On Thursday, Kennedy said that what counts is the intent of the legislature, not the shape of the district.
White voters who challenge a "race-based" district are not "required to make a threshold showing of bizarreness," he said. If race was the "predominant factor" in drawing a district's lines, he said, it violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution.
"Just as the state may not segregate citizens on the basis of race in its public parks, buses, golf courses, beaches and schools," he wrote, "it may not separate its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race."
Before Thursday, most state lawmakers justified their creation of "majority-minority" districts on the grounds that federal civil rights officials had pressed them to do just that. But Kennedy said that federal officials cannot go that far.
"When the Justice Department . . . compels race-based districting, it by definition raises a serious constitutional question and should not receive deference," he wrote.