A Troubling Court Ruling: Linda Allewalt

This op-ed originally appeared in the Courier-Journal on Sept. 2, 2007.

By Linda Allewalt

In March 2004, President Bush explained why he had created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: “I got a little frustrated in Washington because I couldn’t get the bill passed. Congress wouldn’t act, so I signed an Executive Order–that means I did it on my own.”

Since then, more than $65 billion has been spent on grants, programs and events for religious groups, with $1.7 billion going to overseas programs between 2001 and 2005 that have little or no U.S. government oversight. The monies come out of discretionary funds in various agencies of the Executive Branch, and from cuts in funding and/or dollar transfers from several highly successful federal programs for communities and children.

Christian groups have received 98.3% of the grant funds. Bush has also created a large bureaucracy. There are at least 12 “faith czars” placed in various agencies of government, whose job is not to hand out the grant funds, but to conduct events to assist grant applicants. Such events include conferences or faith-based meetings, complete with gospel choirs, prayers and tutoring on writing grant applications. The Departments of Justice, Education, Labor, Health and Human Service, and Housing and Urban Development alone have reported spending $24 million on administrative activities related to the initiative between 2002 and 2005.

In their June 25 decision ( Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation), the Supreme Court (5-4) struck down taxpayers’ right to sue the Executive Branch for breaching the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights by using taxpayer monies to fund religious activities.

The Court essentially said that while you can sue Congress or other entities for such acts, your tax dollars somehow change color and character when they flow from Congress to the Executive Branch. The Judicial Branch of our government has put the Executive Branch into some kind of special category that allows it to ignore the Constitution. It seems to be just the type of category that is favored by the current occupants.

Churches and faith-based organizations, many of them practicing religious discrimination and outright religious proselytizing with these “good works” funds, are flocking to the federal agencies for handouts. Pat Robertson got $14 million.

It seems that if churches can’t get you to walk in the front door as a dues paying member, they will still be able to get your tax dollars through the back door, courtesy of the federal government. We are all tithing to religious sects, with no choice.

James Madison said very clearly, with the support of the Framers of the Constitution, that the Establishment Clause provided protection for citizens against violations of conscience caused by being forced to support a religious sect (or sects) unwillingly. Justice David Souter (in his dissent) cited the confirmation of the “Madisonian relationship of tax monies and conscience” from several famous Supreme Court rulings.

Souter also directly quoted Madison, who said that a free society may not “force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of one establishment” of religion. Madison himself, as president, put his definitions to work when he vetoed two bills that would have given free government land grants to religious sects. After reminding Congress of the intent of the Establishment Clause, his vetoes held.

We now have five Supreme Court justices, most called “strict constructionists” by their admirers, who very clearly ignore both the construction and the intent of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

So is there a remedy? Sort of. Actually, a couple of the justices in the majority pointed the way. Justice Samuel Alito, not recognizing that the horse has already left the barn, said that if abuses of the Establishment Clause did take place, “Congress could quickly step in.” Justice Antonin Scalia said that Congress could “codify the truism that no appropriation can be spent by the Executive Branch in a manner that violates the Establishment Clause.”

So there you have it. Our remedy is to turn to Congress, half of whom supports Bush’s programs, the other half of whom is too wary of the voting power of religious groups to challenge the spending.

The Founders warned us time and time again about the dangers of mixing religion and government.

We’re in for a rough ride.

Foundation member Linda Allewalt writes: “I have lived in Shelbyville, Ky., for five years. I have worked as an educational coordinator at a Family Planning Agency, as a teacher’s aide and most recently as a docent at the Fermi National Acclerator Lab in Illinois. Since coming to Kentucky, I have mostly been a professional volunteer, working with the Salato Wildlife Center in the native plant program, with the Shelbyville Downtown Design committee and with the Shelby County Arts Guild. In 2002, I helped edit a book by a Fermilab scientist (Understanding the Universe, by Don Lincoln), which was a great experience. I have always enjoyed writing letters to newspapers, and was fortunate enough to be accepted into the volunteer Forum Fellows program at the Louisville Courier Journal. I have done extensive research into the issue of the meaning of the Establishment Clause and am alarmed at the rapid rise in the Christian Dominionist movement and in the pervasive distortion of our country’s history. I write letters and counter arguments whenever I see misinformation printed in any news or magazine publications. I am married and have two grown daughters, one an environmental scientist and the other an urban planner.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation