Federal Court Blocks Louisiana from Funneling Taxpayer Funds to Favored Churches

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
October 5, 2007 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS – In a victory for religious liberty, a federal judge today issued an order blocking the payment of taxpayer-funded grants to two Louisiana churches. The court found that “these non-neutral, direct money grants of taxpayer funds to favored houses of worship are clearly unconstitutional.” The order comes as a result of a lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana.

“We are pleased that the judge recognized that Louisiana cannot use taxpayer money to fund its preferred churches,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The state of Louisiana may work with religious organizations to achieve secular goals, but funneling taxpayer dollars to houses of worship without any neutral grantmaking process, restrictions on use, or secular purpose is a blatant violation of the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance of the Eastern District of Louisiana found that the two unrestricted earmarks “fall within the core proscription of the Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment that protects religious liberty. Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Vance explained that “one of the specific evils feared by those who drafted the Establishment Clause and fought for its adoption was that the taxing and spending power would be used to favor one religion over another or to support religion in general.” The judge found that the challenged grants in Louisiana unconstitutionally favored two houses of worship and lacked any specified secular purpose, as required by the First Amendment. “Rather than choosing a secular aim to be achieved by the State, and then implementing a program under which religious and nonreligious organizations could apply to serve that goal…Louisiana has singled out certain churches, allocated funds to them directly, and identified no secular purpose for the money.”

The ACLU challenged the constitutionality of a general appropriations measure, HB1, that was signed into law last July by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. The measure directed taxpayer grants in the amounts of $100,000 to Stonewall Baptist Church in Bossier City and $20,000 to Shreveport Christian Church. The grants were not subject to any oversight or competitive bidding process and the bill offered no purpose or justification for the challenged earmarks. 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.

Before the lawsuit was filed, repeated attempts by the ACLU to learn more about the grants were largely ignored by the state, which refused to respond to several requests for documentation. The ACLU of Louisiana filed the lawsuit on behalf of itself and its members in an effort to reaffirm the basic constitutional ban on government-funded religious activities.

“Today’s court ruling proves that Louisiana was not spending the taxpayers’ money in a responsible or lawful manner,” said Katie Schwartzmann, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. “This is a meaningful step in the right direction for restoring constitutional checks to Louisiana’s infamous earmarking process.”

Louisiana residents have long criticized the legislature for using earmarked appropriations bills to fund preferred private entities. The underlying problems of paybacks and slush funds have become increasingly clear following recent reforms that, for the first time, require each earmark to be listed individually. It is now clear that the earmarking process has been hiding unconstitutional efforts to send taxpayer dollars to favored churches for years.

Attorneys on the case are Mach and Lane Dilg of the national ACLU, and Schwartzmann of the ACLU of Louisiana.

A copy of today’s decision is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion/govtfunding/32101lgl20071005.html

Related materials can be found online at: www.aclu.org/religion/govtfunding/31293lgl20070813.html

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