- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Supreme Court wrestled yesterday with the question of whether taxpayers have the right to challenge the White House’s promotion of federal financial aid for religious charities.

At issue is whether a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics have legal standing, by virtue of being taxpayers, to bring their complaint in the federal court system.

Taking one extreme, Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked a lawyer for the White House whether a taxpayer would be able to challenge a law in which Congress sets up a church at Plymouth Rock.

“I would say no,” responded Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, but he added that such a church could be challenged in other ways — just not on the basis that a taxpayer has been injured. Mr. Clement is representing the Bush administration, which is trying to prevent the taxpayer lawsuit over its promotion of federal aid through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Taking the opposite extreme, Justice Antonin Scalia asked an attorney for the Wisconsin group whether taxpayers would be able to sue over the use of security money for a presidential trip during which religion is discussed.

Andrew Pincus said that taxpayers would not have standing to do so, arguing that in such a case the money spent would be “incidental,” and not central to the issue.

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.

However, the Bush 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.

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

The group challenging the Bush administration, called the Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., characterizes the White House’s initiative as a singling out of faith-based organizations to the exclusion of other organizations.


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