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Steve Gilliard, 1964-2007

It is with tremendous sadness that we must convey the news that Steve Gilliard, editor and publisher of The News Blog, passed away June 2, 2007. He was 42.

To those who have come to trust The News Blog and its insightful, brash and unapologetic editorial tone, we have Steve to thank from the bottom of our hearts. Steve helped lead many discussions that mattered to all of us, and he tackled subjects and interest categories where others feared to tread.

Please keep Steve's friends and family in your thoughts and prayers.

Steve meant so much to us.

We will miss him terribly.

photo by lindsay beyerstein


Street Prophet's Pastor Dan: "Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation"

Your tax dollars are paying for WHAT?

Thanks to Pastor Dan of Street Prophets for this great post - THANKS DAN!

The Supreme Court will hear arguments today on a case testing the limits of Pres. Bush's Faith-Based Initiatives program. Everyone who's commented on the suit agrees that it's a seemingly obscure dispute that holds much larger implications. The AP has the shortest version:

The White House is turning to the Supreme Court for help as the administration fights a challenge to its aggressive promotion of federal financial aid for religious charities.

Last year, a federal appeals court allowed a group of atheists to pursue a lawsuit alleging the Bush administration gives faith-based programs an inside track on federal grant programs.

Instead of going through Congress, Bush issued executive orders to create the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and similar centers in 10 federal agencies during his first term.

FFRF has challenged the FBIs program on church-state grounds, and the issue before the court is whether they have the standing to press their case. As Melissa Rogers says, it's easy to get lost in the technical details, but essentially the case boils down a few points:

The Bush administration contends that taxpayers cannot challenge the use of these funds because they are general funds, not grants to religious groups pursuant to an act of Congress. The administration argues that the executive branch's use of these funds for faith-based conferences doesn't involve Congressional taxing and spending power.

The lower court in this case, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, found that the taxpayers were entitled to bring this lawsuit. Writing for the court majority, Judge Posner said that precedent confirmed that taxpayers have the ability to challenge alleged violations of the Establishment Clause even if Congress has not earmarked funds for the program or activity being challenged.

The lower court noted that "[t]he line proposed by the government (no standing to challenge the conferences, standing to challenge the grants) would be artificial because there is so much that executive officials could do to promote religion in ways forbidden by the [E]stablishment [C]lause (which despite its wording applies to executive as well as congressional action. . .) without making grants to religious organizations."

Among other things, the court pointed to a hypothetical to help make its point. "Suppose the Secretary of Homeland Security, who has unearmarked funds in his budget, decided to build a mosque and pay an Imam a salary to preach in it because the Secretary believed that federal financial assistance to Islam would reduce the likelihood of Islamic terrorism in the United States." Taypayers should be able to challenge these things, the court said. It concluded: "Taxpayers have standing to challenge an executive-branch program, alleged to promote religion, that is financed by a congressional appropriation, even if the program was created entirely within the executive branch, as by Presidential executive order."

As it stands today, ordinary citizens cannot challenge general governmental spending - the 7th Circuit cited the example of armor-plating for the president's limousine - unless they can demonstrate direct harm to themselves. If Pres. Bush for whatever reason finds the money to tear my house down, I can sue. If for whatever reason he can find the money to tear down my neighbor's house, and I can't show that that hurts me, I'm out of luck.

The one exception to this general rule is in First Amendment cases. In Flast v. Cohen, it was established that groups like FFRF can challenge government spending on separation grounds, the theory being that the "harm" is general in nature.

To limit the threat to its programs, the Administration is arguing two things: first, that Flast applies only to Congressional spending, not Executive or "general funds," and that citizens can only challenge money given to third parties, not spent internally. (In other words, FFRF can challenge specific grants given through the FBIs program, not the program itself, or more narrowly, the money it spent organizing seminars to teach religiously-based groups how to apply for government grants through the program.)

All of that leads to some big implications:
  • A ruling for the government could be used to strengthen Administration barriers against challenges to its decisions, both in First Amendment cases and otherwise. Particularly worrying, however, is that a judgment in favor of the Administration would create a loophole large enough for them to drive a Mack truck through - or a mosque, as the case may be.

    There is utterly nothing in the track record of this administration to make anybody think it could be trusted to distribute funds to religious groups fairly. Even worse, given Dick Cheney's love of the Unitary Executive, closing off one more avenue of challenge would be positively mouthwatering to this gang.

  • Several states have filed an amicus brief arguing that a ruling in favor of FFRF would impinge on the doctrine of federalism. Look at this list and tell me most of them wouldn't love to be exempted from these challenges on the grounds of "States' Rights": Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington State.

  • Without standing, folks like the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, People for the American Way, and the Anti-Defamation League, and a host of other separation-minded groups would essentially be locked out of the courtroom, a prospect that has right-wingers like the Christian Defense Fund and the ACLJ positively salivating.

    It should go without saying - but unfortunately does not - that many of these groups don't actually hate faith. For that matter, neither does FFRF, though they condsider it a menace. But the ACLU is at some pains to point out that they have been active in many cases defending clients' right to free expression of their faith, a point that is often conveniently forgotten by their conservative detractors.

There is also a chance, however slim, that the SCOTUS will overturn Flast altogether, a chilling prospect indeed.

Hold on to your hats, because this is going to be a wild ride. The agreement seems to be that the case will be resolved by a slim majority - 5-4 or 6-3 - and it could really go either way. Melissa Rogers has some typically excellent analysis, and I'm told this analysis from the Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy is solid, if you're interested in all the juicy details.

- posted by Pastor Dan of Street Prophets