Supreme Court Decision Undermines Religious Freedom

In a 5-4 decision this past Monday on an Arizona tax credit program, the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs who challenged the program did not have standing to sue, allowing the continuation of the program (which overwhelmingly funds religious schools) and slowly eroding the boundaries between religion and government. Interfaith Alliance joined a friend-of-the-court brief authored by our friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and needless to say, this is not the outcome we’d hoped for.

The Arizona program offers a tax credit of up to $500 per person for money donated to a School Tuition Organization (STO).  These STO’s can then choose how to disburse the scholarships (e.g. to schools of a particular religion), effectively creating an indirect funding scheme for government-subsidized religious activities. By ruling that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue, the Supreme Court has made it significantly more difficult to challenge indirect government spending that appears to violate the Establishment Clause, allowing the government to continue such programs with little to no fear of reprisal.  In her dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan indicated that the ruling also provided a new, now Court-approved, path for the funding of religious activities, a view echoed by Interfaith Alliance President and State of Belief host, Rev. Welton Gaddy:

“It is a sad day when the highest Court in the nation makes a ruling that broadsides the Establishment Clause by approving a government funding scheme that benefits religion and weakens a fundamental promise in the Constitution—our first freedom, religious freedom.”

This ruling runs afoul of the 1968 Flast vs. Cohen ruling on taxpayer standing, which makes an exception that grants taxpayers standing in the case of an alleged Establishment Clause violation.  Coupled with a 2007 ruling barring challenges to the faith-based initiative, Monday’s ruling seriously impinges upon taxpayers’ ability to challenge potentially unconstitutional uses of government money.  As Rev. Gaddy said, “One wonders what this court is trying to do to our society!”

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