WASHINGTON A closely divided Supreme Court ruled on Monday that taxpayers cannot challenge President George W. Bush's use of government funds to finance social programs operated by religious groups.
By a 5-4 vote, the high court's conservative majority sided with the Bush administration by ruling that a Wisconsin group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation and three of its members had no legal right to bring the lawsuit in the first place.
The ruling only addressed whether taxpayers can bring such challenges, not whether the program itself violated the U.S. Constitution's requirement on the separation of church and state.
The majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, who was appointed to the high court by President George W. Bush, overturned a ruling that allowed the lawsuit to proceed. Bush's other high court appointee, Chief Justice John Roberts, also joined the ruling.
In January 2001, soon after he became president, Bush issued an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and similar centers in various federal agencies.
One of the goals Bush set was to help religious and community groups better compete for federal funds to fight poverty, substance abuse and other social problems.
The lawsuit said administration officials violated the Constitution by organizing national and regional conferences at which religious groups received favored treatment over secular groups.
It said the officials made public appearances and gave speeches throughout the United States intended to promote and advocate funding for religious groups.
Administration lawyers said a 1968 Supreme Court precedent allowed such taxpayer challenges in religion cases only if the program had been funded under a specific congressional appropriation. Bush's program was not financed through such an appropriation, but through a White House discretionary fund.
"This is a very significant victory that sends a powerful message that atheists and others antagonistic to religion do not get an automatic free pass to bring ... lawsuits," said Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice.
The Rev. Barry Lynn of the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State called it a disappointing decision "that blocks the courthouse door for Americans with legitimate church-state grievances."
But he said it will have minimal impact. "It is important to note that this ruling applies to only a few situations. Most church-state lawsuits ... will not be affected," he said.
Alito said in the majority ruling that it has long been established that payment of taxes is generally not enough to establish the legal right to challenge a federal government action.
"If every federal taxpayer could sue to challenge any government expenditure, the federal courts would cease to functions as courts of law and would be cast in the role of general complaint bureaus," Alito wrote.
The court's four liberals dissented. Souter wrote for the dissenters that the taxpayers in the case had alleged sufficient injury to bring the lawsuit.