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Taxpayers can't challenge faith-based program, justices rule

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Ordinary taxpayers cannot challenge a White House initiative that helps religious charities get a share of federal money, the Supreme Court ruled today.

The 5-4 decision in Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation blocks a lawsuit by a group of atheists and agnostics against eight Bush administration officials, including the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The Madison, Wis.-based taxpayers' group, the Freedom from Religion Foundation Inc., objected to government conferences in which administration officials encourage religious charities to apply for federal grants.

Taxpayers in the case "set out a parade of horribles that they claim could occur" unless the court stopped the Bush administration initiative, wrote Justice Samuel Alito.

"For example, they say, a federal agency could use its discretionary funds to build a house of worship or to hire clergy of one denomination and send them out to spread their faith. Or an agency could use its funds to make bulk purchases of Stars of David, crucifixes or depictions of the star and crescent for use in its offices or for distribution to the employees or the general public. Of course, none of these things has happened.

"In the unlikely event that any of these executive actions did take place, Congress could quickly step in," Alito wrote.

The justices' decision revolved around a 1968 Supreme Court ruling, Flast v. Cohen, that enabled taxpayers to challenge government programs that promote religion.

The 1968 decision involved the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which financed teaching and instructional materials in religious schools in low-income areas.

"This case falls outside" the narrow exception allowing such cases to proceed, Alito wrote.

In dissent, Justice David Souter said the Court should have allowed the taxpayer challenge to proceed.

The majority "closes the door on these taxpayers because the executive branch, and not the legislative branch, caused their injury," wrote Souter. "I see no basis for this distinction in either logic or precedent."

"Here, there is no dispute that taxpayer money in identifiable amounts is funding conferences, and these are alleged to have the purposes of promoting religion," Souter wrote. "When executive agencies spend identifiable sums of tax money for religious purposes, no less than when Congress authorizes the same thing, taxpayers suffer injury."

The Bush administration says taxpayers should not be allowed to challenge the government's conferences because Congress did not earmark funds for a specific program and no funds were distributed outside the government. The White House pulled money for the conferences out of general appropriations.

With the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, President Bush says he wants to level the playing field: Religious charities and secular charities should compete for government money on an equal footing, says the president.

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore called the ruling "a substantial victory for efforts by Americans to more effectively aid our neighbors in need of help."

She said the faith-based and community initiative could remain focused on "strengthening America's armies of compassion."

The ruling won't block other legal action against the White House initiative, opponents said.

"Most church-state lawsuits, including those that challenge congressional appropriations for faith-based programs, will not be affected," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The outcome of the case before the Supreme Court was disappointing, Lynn said, because "taxpayers should be allowed to challenge public funding of religion, whether the money is allocated by Congress or the White House."

"It's a bad day for the First Amendment. The Supreme Court just put a big dent in the wall of separation between church and state," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People For the American Way Foundation, a liberal-oriented group.

The White House program appears to have had a substantial impact.

In fiscal 2005, seven federal agencies awarded $2.1 billion to religious charities, according to a White House report. That was up 7% from the year before and represented 10.9% of the grants from the seven federal agencies providing money to faith-based groups.

Among the programs: Substance abuse treatment, housing for AIDS patients, community re-entry for inmates, housing for homeless veterans and emergency food assistance.


High court hears atheists' challenge to faith-based programs

Issue is whether individuals have standing by virtue of their being taxpayers to bring complaint in federal court system. 02.28.07

Quick look: Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation

Hein ruling has 'quick and dramatic' effect on church-state cases
Some legal observers startled by fallout in cases claiming government violations of establishment clause. 11.09.07

Obama to propose expanding Bush's faith-based program
Democratic presidential candidate plans to announce today his approach to getting religious charities more involved in government anti-poverty programs. 07.01.08

'Faith-based' case tests establishment-clause lawsuit standing
By Tony Mauro Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation doesn't address meaning of religion clause, but could affect whether taxpayers can sue over government efforts to accommodate religion. 12.04.06

Court appears divided in faith-based case
By Tony Mauro Justices must review earlier precedent to decide if atheists have standing to sue over Bush administration program. 03.01.07

First Amendment claims get mixed reception at Court
By Tony Mauro Rulings shed light on how more conservative majority looks at the First Amendment — and how the moderate-liberal wing is losing ground. 06.26.07

Rhetoric aside, most First Amendment claimants lose
By Tony Mauro Beyond the scorekeeping, however, 2006-07 term gives important insights into how Roberts, Alito view First Amendment. 07.16.07

2006-07 Supreme Court case tracker

Charitable choice/faith-based initiatives

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