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Court to decide if taxpayers can sue over faith-based plan

Posted: 12/18/06

Court to decide if taxpayers
can sue over faith-based plan

By Robert Marus

ABP Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (ABP)—The Supreme Court will, for the first time, hear a case directly related to President Bush’s faith-based initiatives, his attempt to expand the government’s ability to fund social services through churches and other religious charities.

However, the case does not deal directly with whether the program violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion, as some of its critics contend. Rather, the court will consider a narrower issue—whether a group of taxpayers has “standing,” or the right to sue, over the use of general executive-branch funds to promote the faith-based plan.

In an unusual move, the court agreed to hear Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation and expedite its normal schedule for each side in the case to file legal papers.

In the case, President Bush’s administration appealed a 2005 ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision said that a group of taxpayers, represented by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, could challenge the White House’s practice of spending money on a series of conferences to promote the faith-based initiative.

The taxpayers said they had standing to challenge the practice because government money was being used to promote religion, even though Congress did not specifically appropriate the money for any religious groups.

Attorneys for the government responded that giving taxpayers the right to sue over the conferences would dramatically expand the rules for such lawsuits dealing with the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

The expedited briefing schedule calls for legal documents in the case to be filed by Feb. 16, about 78 days after the Dec. 1 ruling. The normal briefing schedule is for such documents to be on file by 115 days after the court agrees to hear the case.

Because of the expedited schedule, the justices could hear oral arguments in the case by the end of February—meaning they could hand down a decision in the case by the end of the court’s 2006-07 term in June.

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