WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court today agreed to hear cases on whether the Boy Scouts of America can exclude homosexuals as troop leaders and if states may ban a surgical procedure opponents call ``partial birth abortion.''
In the abortion case, the justices voted to review a Nebraska law that made it a crime for doctors to perform such abortions. A federal appeals court struck down that law, calling it unconstitutional.
Nearly identical laws have been enacted by 30 states, but courts have blocked enforcement of most of them.
A month after the Nebraska law was invalidated along with laws in Iowa and Arkansas, nearly identical abortion laws in Illinois and Wisconsin were upheld by another federal appeals court.
That created a direct conflict legal experts predicted would force the Supreme Court to re-enter the legal, political and moral storm it created by ruling in 1973 that women have a constitutional right to abortion. The justices reaffirmed that core right in 1992, their last major abortion ruling.
Although the current controversy swirls around a specific procedure, abortion-rights activists contend far more may be at stake. They say the court's eventual decision could broadly safeguard - or dramatically erode - abortion rights, depending on what state legislatures are allowed to consider when passing laws to regulate abortions.
The court will hear arguments in the Nebraska case in April. Its decision is expected by July.
Congress enacted a federal ban on partial-birth abortions but President Clinton vetoed it.
The procedure involves partially extracting a fetus, legs first, through the birth canal, cutting the skull and draining its contents.
In the Boy Scouts case, the justices said they will review a ruling in which New Jersey's highest court said the organization unlawfully ousted a young man, James Dale, after learning he is gay. Their decision is expected by July.
The state court ruled last summer that the Boy Scouts' denial of membership to homosexual boys and leaders violated a New Jersey law banning discrimination in public accommodations.
Lawyers for the Boy Scouts told the justices that the state court's ruling ``endangers important constitutional principles of freedom of speech and freedom of association.''
At stake, they said, are ``constitutional rights at the heart of our free society: the freedom of a private, voluntary, noncommercial organization to create and interpret its own moral code, and to choose leaders and define membership criteria accordingly.''
But lawyers for Dale said there is ``no evidence'' to support the Boy Scouts' contention ``that preventing it from discriminating against its gay members would in any way alter or burden the messages, purposes and values that bring Scouting's diverse members together.''