A divided Supreme Court yesterday stopped an atheist group's lawsuit against President Bush's faith-based initiative, ruling that the plaintiffs do not have standing in the case and thus enabling Bush to continue a program he created by executive order without congressional approval.
The decision was made on a day when the high court showed its increasingly conservative tilt, approving restrictions on student speech, loosening limits on corporate- and union-paid advertising close to Election Day, and siding with developers in an environmental suit.
All four cases were decided by 5 -to- 4 votes, with both of Bush's picks -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who replaced the late William Rehnquist, and Justice Samuel Alito, who was confirmed after Sandra Day O'Connor retired -- siding with the majority. Rehnquist was a solid conservative, while O'Connor was widely viewed as a centrist swing vote.
The decisions show that "President Bush got exactly what he hoped for, a court substantially further to the right," said Tom Goldstein, a Harvard Law School lecturer on Supreme Court litigation who has also argued cases before the high court. If O'Connor were still on the court, he said, all four cases might have been decided differently.
The faith-based case is particularly important, Goldstein said, because it protects Bush's programs from legal challenges and indicates that the court will be "less concerned about keeping church and state separate, so later decisions will be more sympathetic to government's cooperating with religious institutions."
The plaintiffs in the case, including taxpayers from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, had argued that the funding of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, violated the established separation of church and state, putting the government in the position of steering hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to groups with strong religious affiliations. The plaintiffs argued that Bush was spending taxpayer funds to hold conferences at which religious groups were urged to apply for federal grants.
But the Supreme Court, while not ruling directly on the First Amendment church-state issue, found that the taxpayers who sued the government can not do so simply because they pay taxes.
Writing for the majority, Alito said the federal budget is so big "it is a complete fiction to argue that an unconstitutional federal expenditure causes an individual federal taxpayer any measurable economic harm. And if every federal taxpayer could sue to challenge any government expenditure, the federal courts would cease to function as courts of law and would be cast in the role of general complaint bureaus."
Alito noted that the Supreme Court had previously made an exception under which taxpayers could sue if Congress appropriates funds in a way that violates the separation of church and state. But in this case, Alito wrote, the faith-based initiative funds were "paid for out of general Executive Branch appropriations" and therefore were not directly funded by Congress.