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Faith-based Challenge Headed to Court

The U.S. Supreme Court today hears arguments in the first legal challenge to President Bush’s creation of White House and cabinet offices for faith-based initiatives.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in 2004 claiming the president’s program violates the First Amendment by giving faith-based organizations preferred positions in qualifying to receive federal funds. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
A federal judge dismissed the challenge, saying the organization and three taxpayer plaintiffs lacked legal standing to sue over general appropriations within the executive branch, unless those funds were approved by Congress.  
 
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the suit, however, holding that tax money raised by Congress cannot be used to establish religion in ways prohibited by the First Amendment. The Bush administration appealed the foundation’s win to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in December.
 
The question before the high court at this point is not the general merits of the faith-based initiatives but whether a taxpayer has the right to sue the government over discretionary use of federal tax dollars to promote religion.
 
“We firmly believe there should be no ‘faith-based’ office in any government branch,” Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a press release. “We hope to be able to stop this outrageous and unlawful establishment of religion. These executive orders have opened the floodgates of publicly funded religious proselytizing and preference. Respect for the Establishment Clause needs to be restored, and taxpayers’ right to be free from taxation to support religion needs to be protected.”
 
Groups including Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty have filed briefs arguing on behalf of the foundation’s lawsuit. The American Center for Law and Justice, Christian Legal Society and nine states with faith-based offices or liaisons support the White House.
 
The case, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, hinges on three Supreme Court precedents–two finding taxpayers had a right to challenge federal funding to religious organizations and one denying taxpayers a right to sue over transfer of an army hospital to a religious group.
 
One of President Bush’s first acts in office was to announce his faith-based initiative. Bush created a faith-based office in the White House and ordered faith-based assignments at several government agencies. Programs include not only faith-based social services in places like Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, but also extend into the departments of Agriculture and Homeland Security.
 
The Freedom From Religious Foundation, the largest organization of atheists and agnostics in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />North America, says funding of these faith-based bureaucracies has cost taxpayers multiple millions of dollars. While faith-based offices do not fund religious agencies directly, the group says, they specialize in facilitating such funding by holding conferences for church groups.
 
“Faith-based groups are wooed, given a free lunch, and directly encouraged and trained at the conferences in applying for grants,” the foundation said in a blog.
 
Supporters of the president’s faith-based initiative say its intent is to allow a level playing field for religious organizations to compete for funding with secular agencies. But the Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that it conveys a message that religion is “favored, preferred and promoted over other beliefs and non-belief.” Faith-based offices unconstitutionally establish religion, they contend, and force taxpayers to pay for support of religions to which they object.
 
Pat Robertson’s AmericanCenter for Law and Justice asked the high court to put an end to federal taxpayer suits by groups that advocate the separation of church and state.
 
“For years, atheists and others who are antagonistic to religion have had special privileges in federal court,” ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow said in a press release.
 
“Unlike everyone else, church/state separationists have not had to show that a law or government activity actually injured them in any way before they could challenge it in federal court. All they had to do was show that they were taxpayers,” Sekulow said. “In essence, separationists have had a free pass to bring Establishment Clause lawsuits. That’s unfair. No other citizens can sue just because they pay taxes.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.