Why you should care about objections to faith-based organizations

    Anna Nicole Smith, may she rest in peace, once had a case heard in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a case currently on the Court’s docket could limit cases concerning government spending on religion. That would be Anna Nicole Smith 1, taxpayers concerned about church and state 0.

    The Supreme Court heard testimony last week in a case about whether taxpayers objecting to religious spending can challenge it in court. Congressional spending is notoriously difficult to challenge in court, since a plaintiff must prove they were victimized to be part of the small percentage of cases heard by the high court. This is a tough claim; let’s be honest, it’s not like Congress is funding programs designed to alienate Americans or risk lives (too easy?).

    The suit in question involves the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, a department started by Bush that tries to expand the role of faith-based organizations in providing social services. It offers grants and an annual conference in order to give religious (but not just Christian) groups more standing. However, the plaintiff, the Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc. of Madison, Wisconsin, argues that this is a flagrant violation of church and state, since it boils down to government-sponsored, faith-based groups. They especially had issue with the department’s conference, which was directly funded with taxpayer money.

    Normally, they would have no standing in court, but a 1968 ruling allowed religion-based cases to be brought. Flast v. Cohen established the precedent that taxpayers could bring suits based on religious spending because there was a violation of the first amendment (the religion part). The current case will be an ultimatum of sorts for that precedent- if the court sides with the FFRF, the ruling stays, but if not, the precedent gets overturned.

    The ability to challenge religion-based cases could become important in the coming decade, as a number of religious issues are coming to a head. Abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school and stem cell research, in addition to that broad issue of church and state are all based in religion- legislation that funds a group taking the faith-based side could then be challenged in court. For instance, imagine a group that promotes daily prayer in public schools receives a federal grant to start a social program. Another organization like FFRF could challenge the funding in court using Flast v. Cohen and the current case as a precedent. This hypothetical isn’t too far off, since presidential candidate Barack Obama is all for voluntary school prayer.

    That’s not to say these issues won’t be brought to court (we’ll be sure to hear about them ad nauseum), but this ruling could shut the doors on one approach. But on a smaller level, the case does look at an important issue. In 2005, the Bush administration shelled out about $2.1 billion to faith-based groups through a program started by executive orders and not legislated by Congress. There has been little, if any, taxpayer approval over the programs. This case would give citizens more leeway to challenge some of the initiatives Bush has taken through executive orders, using Constitutional violations as their basis.


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