By John Jalsevac

WASHINGTON, D.C. June 26, 2007 ( – In a split 5-4 decision yesterday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the suit brought forward by a group of atheists and agnostics against the President’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has no standing, and will not, therefore, be able to go forward.

President Bush created the Office in 2001, in order to remove undue barriers that often prevented faith-based and community organizations from accessing federal funds for their social work, thereby “leveling the playing field.”

“President Bush believes that besides being inherently unfair, such an approach can waste tax-payer dollars and cut off the poor from successful programs. Federal funds should be awarded to the most effective organizations—whether public or private, large or small, faith-based or secular—and all must be allowed to compete on a level playing field,” reads the White-House summary of the Initiative.

Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., a group of atheist and agnostic taxpayers, alleged in its lawsuit against the White House that by establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the President was violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, in part because (according to the Supreme Court decision), “President Bush and former Secretary of Education Paige gave speeches that used ‘religious imagery’ and praised the efficacy of faith-based programs in delivering social services.”

Through the President’s Initiative, argued Freedom From Religion, faith-based organizations “are singled out as being particularly worthy of federal funding…, and the belief in God is extolled as distinguishing the claimed effectiveness of faith-based social services.”

Yesterday’s highly technical Supreme Court decision largely hinged upon the interpretation of a precedent set by a 1968 case, “Flast v. Cohen”, which established an exception where taxpayers could challenge specific government spending in the case of a law that allegedly violates the religious Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court, however, reversed a decision by a lower court that argued that “Flast” could be applied to the present case. The Supreme Court majority argued that the lower court’s interpretation of the precedent was too broad, since the original case only applied to laws that had gone through Congress, whereas in the present case the approval for the faith-based program came from the Executive Branch and was “paid for out of general Executive Branch appropriations”.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, argued that by extending taxpayer standing to challenge government spending on the basis of the Establishment Clause, the court would be opening a door that would be difficult to ever close again. “Both the Court of Appeals and respondents implicitly recognize that unqualified federal taxpayer standing to assert Establishment Clause claims would go too far, but neither the Court of Appeals nor respondents has identified a workable limitation,” wrote Alito.

“At a minimum, the Court of Appeals’ approach…would surely create difficult and uncomfortable line-drawing problems. Suppose that it is alleged that a speech writer or other staff member spent extra time doing research for the purpose of including ‘religious imagery’ in a speech. Suppose that a President or a Cabinet officer attends or speaks at a prayer breakfast and that the time spent was time that would have otherwise been spent on secular work.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, points out Alito in the majority decision, “set out a parade of horribles that they claim could occur…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…Of course, none of these things has happened.” And even if a federal agency were to attempt actions that would violate the Establishment Clause, concluded Alito, “Congress could quickly step in.”
  President Bush responded to the Supreme Court’s decision, saying “Today’s Supreme Court decision marks a substantial victory for efforts by Americans to more effectively aid our neighbors in need of help. The Faith-Based and Community Initiative can remain focused on strengthening America’s armies of compassion and expanding their good works. Similar efforts by governors and mayors in states and cities all across the country can also continue to advance.”

“This ruling is a win for the thousands of community and faith-based nonprofits all across the country that have partnered with government at all levels to serve their neighbors. Most importantly, it is a win for the many whose lives have been lifted by the caring touch and compassionate hearts of these organizations.”

Many of the leaders of the faith-based initiatives who under President Bush’s Initiative have become eligible for increased funding to perform their community-work also welcomed the Court decision.

According to AP, in 2005 funding to religious charities was up 7 percent from the previous year, largely thanks to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The ruling “is good news for addicts and the homeless and others seeking effective social services,” said Jim Towey, who formerly headed the White House Office.


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