WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Monday shielded President Bush's faith-based programs from challenge by those who want to keep church and state separate.
Taxpayers lack the legal standing necessary to take Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to court, justices ruled. It's a technical ruling, but still a pronounced victory for the Bush administration and its church allies.
"If every taxpayer could sue to challenge any government expenditure, the federal courts would cease to function as courts of law and would be cast in the role of general complaint bureaus," Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote.
The 5-4 ruling is also a victory for Texas, Florida, South Carolina and nine other states that had sided with the Bush administration. The states feared their own programs might be subject to more legal challenges if taxpayers were empowered to file suits.
"Most importantly, it is a win for the many whose lives have been lifted by the caring hearts and compassionate touch of these (faith-based) organizations," President Bush declared in a prepared statement.
The court's reasoning fractured across several fault lines, complicating efforts to interpret the decision's long-term consequences. It was a clear defeat, though, for those skeptical of Bush's faith-based efforts.
"It's a bad day for the First Amendment," declared Ralph Neas, president of the People for the American Way Foundation. "The Supreme Court just put a big dent in the wall of separation between church and state."
At the same time, other legal challenges to the commingling of religion and government can continue. In Iowa, for instance, skeptics can still persist in their challenge to a state program assisting faith-based groups that serve prisoners. The difference comes in finding plaintiffs who can claim a specific harm.
"It's by no means good news," Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and States, "but most church-state cases are not brought solely on the basis of taxpayer standing."
Bush established the faith-based office in January 2001 as one of his first steps as president. The stated goal was to assist faith-based organizations in competing for federal funding. Bush also established faith-based centers in federal agencies like the Agriculture Department and Labor Department.
White House officials began holding conferences and making speeches in support of religious organizations. Federal dollars began flowing in new directions.
In Fresno, for instance, a faith-based group called Stone Soup deploys federal dollars to serve Hmong refugees. In Dallas, Crossroads Community Services received help in providing food and clothing to the poor. In Clearwater, Fla., faith-based workers assist ex-cons in making the transition out of prison.
The number of federal grants to faith-based organizations increased 38 percent between 2003 and 2005, and the dollar amount increased by 21 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation challenged the White House office, contending that the faith-based federal actions violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. This provision states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion." The White House uses money provided by Congress to operate the government's faith-based offices and to finance grants to faith-based groups.
To make a legal challenge, though, critics must first be granted standing before the courts. Not everyone can file a federal lawsuit. They must have suffered a specific injury.
"As a general matter, the interest of a federal taxpayer in seeing the Treasury funds are spent in accordance with the Constitution does not give rise to the kind of redressable personal injury required for (legal) standing," Alito wrote.
A previous court opinion ruled that taxpayers did have the opportunity to challenge religious spending if it was part of a congressional edict. The court's majority on Monday, though, specifically noted that the faith-based office was part of the White House, not part of a congressional program.
That reasoning did not satisfy the court's four dissenters.
"When executive agencies spend identifiable sums of tax money for religious purposes, no less than when Congress authorizes the same thing, taxpayers suffer injury," Justice David Souter wrote for the dissenters.