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Court permits White House outreach to religious charities

Story Highlights

• The Supreme Court permitted White House outreach to faith-based charities
• The 5-4 decision said taxpayers did not have the "standing" to challenge office
• Atheist and agnostic groups said office gave religious groups unfair access
• White House says the decision is a win for thousands of "faith-based nonprofits"
From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court Monday upheld the legality of an internal White House office that forcefully pushes federal aid for religious charities, a case with an unusual nexus of constitutional, financial and political implications.

By a 5-4 vote, a conservative majority concluded taxpayers did not have "standing" to challenge in court the discretionary spending authority of the executive branch for its Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

An atheist and agnostic group from Wisconsin claimed the Bush administration had given churches and religious groups an unfair advantage in access to federal grant programs. (Read the opinionexternal link)

The justices on both sides of the debate treaded boldly over broader constitutional questions, including the limits of government endorsement of religion. The Constitution forbids any law "respecting the establishment of religion," but judges and politicians have been at odds for decades over a permissible degree of separation between church and state.

But the particulars of the case turned on the more mundane issue of "standing." Normally, citizens are barred from contesting in court how the federal government spends its money. But a 1968 Supreme Court ruling carved out a narrow exception, saying taxpayers can sue over Congress' tax-and-spend authority for specific programs favoring or promoting religion.

But the majority found this latest appeal did not meet the 1968 exception.

"We need go no further to decide this case," wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the controlling majority. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas would have gone further, believing even the 1968 exception should have been tossed out, thus giving taxpayers no challenge power over such disputes. Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy would not go that far.

Alito said since Congress did not specifically authorize how the White House should fund its "day-to-day activities," such expenditures were subject only to the executive's discretion.

Taxpayers, he said, "set out a parade of horribles that they claim could occur" by allowing such faith-based funding to continue, suggesting the federal government could build a national house of worship, or buy Jewish Stars of David and distribute them to public employees.

"Of course none of these things has happened," said Alito, and "in the unlikely event that any of these executive actions did take place, Congress could quickly step in."

The OFBCI was created by executive order in 2001, shortly after President Bush took office. Its Web site says it was designed to ensure that "private and charitable community groups, including religious ones, should have the fullest opportunity permitted by law to compete on a level playing field in the field of providing social services."

In a March 2005 speech, Bush told supporters, "It is said that faith can move mountains. Here in Washington, D.C., those helping the poor and needy often run up a big mountain called bureaucracy. And I'm here to talk about how to move that mountain."

A year earlier, the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit challenging OFBCI's spending authority. Money for the office does not come from a direct congressional expenditure, but from the White House's general "discretionary" fund.

OFBCI does not directly provide grants to any group. Rather, it serves as a clearinghouse of sorts, holding regular conferences around the country where a variety of federal agencies -- including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration -- set up booths to provide information and guidance for religious and community groups applying for aid.

The most recent conference was last month in Seattle.

Freedom from Religion Foundation and other groups say those conferences were little more than propaganda vehicles for religion. They claim as taxpayers the right to challenge how OFBCI spends its money, and whether it should be dismantled.

Four justices agreed, including David Souter, who in dissent said the majority "closes the door on these taxpayers because the executive branch, and not the legislative branch, caused their injury. I see no basis for this distinction."

President Bush hailed the decision.

"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," Bush said in a written statement. "Most importantly, it is a win for the many whose lives have been lifted by the caring touch and compassionate hearts of these organizations."

The case is Hein v. Freedom from Religion (06-157).


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The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that taxpayers did not have standing to sue the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

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