WASHINGTON (AP) â€” The Supreme Court is coming to grips with a dispute over whether states can keep the Ku Klux Klan out of their Adopt-A-Highway cleanup programs.
Almost every state has such a program, and at least 10 have rejected Klan requests to join. Missouri wants the high court to hear its argument that it should be allowed to bar the Klan from adopting a stretch of highway because the organization violates anti-discrimination laws.
Missouri says the state cannot be forced to post signs ``suggesting that the state approves of, and is grateful for, the Klan's participation in the Adopt-A-Highway program.''
But the Klan's lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, Robert Herman, said Monday, ``If nothing else the First Amendment stands for the proposition that the government has no right to exclude you or treat you in a different manner because of the viewpoints that you express.''
A federal appeals court ruled last spring that the state unconstitutionally kept the Klan out of the program because of its views. The court said, ``The First Amendment protects everyone, even those with viewpoints as thoroughly obnoxious as those of the Klan, from viewpoint-based discrimination by the state.''
On Monday, the Supreme Court asked the Clinton administration to give its views on the case. The justices are not expected to decide whether they will hear arguments in the dispute until after the Justice Department files its brief. The government supported the state in the appeals court.
After Missouri lost before a lower court, signs went up last November designating a one-mile stretch of Interstate 55 south of St. Louis as having been adopted by the Klan. A man was fined $100 last February for sawing down one of the signs.
As in almost every state, Missouri's program allows groups to ``adopt'' a stretch of highway and do cleanup work on it. The state saves money, and the groups' efforts are acknowledged on signs posted along the highway. One state that does not have an Adopt-A-Highway program is Vermont.
Each state has its own standards for its program. Missouri's rules â€” written after the Klan applied to join the program â€” ban groups that violate federal and state non-discrimination laws or have a history of violent or criminal behavior.
Missouri's lawyers said nine other states have rejected Klan requests to join their Adopt-A-Highway programs: West Virginia, Texas, Ohio, Maryland, Kansas, Georgia, California, Arkansas and Alabama.
Twenty-seven states have filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Missouri's appeal.
``Violence, vandalism and intimidation continue to be perpetrated by Klansmen, or in the Klan's name,'' the states' brief said. ``Against this background, states now face the prospect of being forced to validate the Klan through the erection of highway signs announcing its presence as a partner of government.''
The states argue that having to put up such signs would violate their right to control their speech.
Herman, the Klan's lawyer, says the organization's own speech is at stake. The Constitution protects the organization ``against those who would misuse government power to suppress political dissidents,'' the group's lawyer said.
The Klan asked to join the Missouri program in 1994. The state denied the application, saying the Klan violated federal and state anti-discrimination laws and citing the Klan's ``history of unlawful violence.''
The Klan sued, and lower courts ruled for the organization. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that Missouri's Adopt-A-Highway program has accepted other groups with discriminatory membership criteria, including the Knights of Columbus, which limits its membership to Catholic men.
The case is Yarnell v. Cuffley, 00-289.