June 25, 2007

Hein v. FFRF Decided: Executive Branch Free to Fund Religious Organizations

We have a major court verdict today. In Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against a challenge to the Bush administration's use of tax dollars to fund their faith-based initiatives. The impact of this decision is that American citizens do not have standing to challenge discretionary spending by the executive branch to support religiously-oriented programs in court.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a statement saying that today's decision, while disappointing, is unlikely to affect most church-state litigation.
“This is a disappointing decision that blocks the courthouse door for Americans with legitimate church-state grievances,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Taxpayers should be allowed to challenge public funding of religion, whether the money is allocated by Congress or the White House.”

"However," Lynn continued, "it is important to note that this ruling applies to only a few situations. Most church-state lawsuits, including those that challenge congressional appropriations for faith-based programs, will not be affected."
From what I just heard on NPR, this may be an overly optimistic analysis. I think this ruling may open the door for future presidents to use discretionary funds to support religious pet projects, fueling the growing trend of pandering to religious groups (i.e., Brownbacking).

The statement issued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation was consistent with my somewhat more pessimistic take on this ruling.
"This means we have a constitutional separation between church and state, but no way to enforce it if the executive branch chooses to violate it with 'discretionary' actions," added Dan Barker, a plaintiff and Foundation co-president. The Foundation is the largest association of atheists and agnostics in the U.S., whose 10,000 members work to keep church and state separate.
Needless to say, I am disappointed with this ruling and will be interested in the legal analysis sure to follow.

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