Supreme Court to Hear Faith-Based Initiatives Challenge

The White House is turning to the Supreme Court for help as the administration fights a challenge to its aggressive promotion of federal financial aid for religious charities.

Last year, a federal appeals court allowed a group of atheists to pursue a lawsuit alleging the Bush administration gives faith-based programs an inside track on federal grant programs.

Instead of going through Congress, Bush issued executive orders to create the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and similar centers in 10 federal agencies during his first term.

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One of the goals Bush set for these offices was to help religious and community groups compete for federal funding to fight poverty, substance abuse and other social problems.

This assistance is being challenged by Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics which characterizes the White House's initiative as a singling out of faith-based organizations to the exclusion of other organizations.

The issue before the justices is whether the atheists have the right — called standing — by virtue of their being taxpayers to bring their complaint in the federal court system.

The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago sided with the anti-religion group, and the Justice Department wants the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court.

The appeals court ruling "would transform the doctrine of taxpayer standing into a roving license" on church-state issues, says the Justice Department solicitor general's office.

The case may turn on a 1968 Supreme Court decision that created an exception to the general prohibition on taxpayer challenges to the government spending of tax revenue. In an 8-1 decision by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court allowed taxpayers to challenge congressional spending for private religious schools.

In the current case, the Bush administration organizes conferences where faith-based organizations are allegedly singled out as being particularly worthy of receiving federal money.

The administration says spending for speeches and meetings of executive branch officials does not involve spending federal money outside the government and therefore taxpayers are not entitled to challenge it.

Taxpayer standing is not restricted to grants outside the government, lawyers for the group of atheists argued.

The case is Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., 06-157.

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