ACLU Settlement Stops Louisiana From Earmarking Taxpayer Funds To Favored Churches

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
January 16, 2009 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS – As part of a settlement reached with the American Civil Liberties Union, the state of Louisiana agreed to stop funneling taxpayer-funded grants to certain selected churches. The agreement settles an ACLU lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of portions of a 2007 law that directed unrestricted cash payments to churches favored by the government.

“This is a victory for religious liberty and the people of Louisiana,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “We are extraordinarily pleased that the state of Louisiana has agreed to stop using taxpayer money to fund its preferred churches. It’s clear that allowing politicians to earmark taxpayer dollars to favored religious groups without any restrictions or secular purpose violates the First Amendment.”

Today’s settlement makes permanent an October 2007 court order that blocked the challenged grants. In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance of the Eastern District of Louisiana found that the unrestricted earmarks “fall within the core proscription of the Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment that protects religious liberty. Judge Vance also found that “these non-neutral, direct money grants of taxpayer funds to favored houses of worship are clearly unconstitutional.”

The ACLU challenged the constitutionality of a general appropriations measure, House Bill 1, which was signed into law in July 2007 by former Governor Kathleen Blanco. Among other things, the measure directed taxpayer earmarks in the amounts of $100,000 to one church in Bossier City and $20,000 to another church in Shreveport. The ACLU lawsuit initially covered those two grants and was later expanded to include an additional six earmarks to other houses of worship in Louisiana. The challenged grants were not subject to any oversight or competitive bidding process and the bill offered no purpose or justification for them.

According to the ACLU, while the state can, in certain circumstances, provide funding to religious organizations for non-religious social services, the First Amendment squarely bars the government from funneling direct, unrestricted cash payments to churches. As a result of the lawsuit and settlement, no taxpayer dollars will be used to fund the challenged earmarks.

“This agreement restores important constitutional protections to Louisiana’s infamous earmarking process. No longer will government officials be allowed use taxpayer dollars to fund their favorite churches,” said Katie Schwartzmann, Legal Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “And while we are gratified that the state agreed to end this practice, we will remain vigilant to ensure that Louisiana is held to its constitutional responsibilities.”

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