Monday, April 5, 2010

Can Taxpayers Sue Just Because They’re Taxpayers?

In this blogpost on ACLU’s blog, ACLU reviews a case it is currently pursuing. The ACLU is suing on behalf of the members of ACLU of Massachusetts because said members object that their tax dollars are being funneled by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The USCCB uses this money to help victims of human trafficking; however, it does not allow anyone who comes to it for help to seek contraceptive or abortion services. That is, the USCCB refuses to let federal funds go to contraceptive or abortion services because of its religious beliefs. Hence, the ACLU sued.

I told you all that to tell you this: the government asked that the case be dismissed based upon a US Supreme Court decision in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation. In that case, “which barred taxpayers from challenging the funding of regional conferences hosted by the Bush administration to promote its so-called ‘Faith-Based Initiative.’” This decision has since been used to argue that taxpayers do not have standing to sue the government over the use of tax dollars. Crisis narrowly averted in this case, though, for the federal court in Massachusetts did not dismiss the case.

However, this does bring up an interesting question. In many of the court cases we’ve read in class, such as Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, the Court has said in its decisions that taxpayers have an interest in how that money is being used. A non-Catholic, for example, shouldn’t have to pay for a Catholic school. To argue otherwise could make challenges based on Establishment Clause almost impossible. However, would a challenge against school prayer have worked in Engel v. Vitale if Engel wasn’t a student? Could a citizen who did not have a child in school have challenged school prayer? In theory, certainly, in practice… And, if the Freed From Religion Foundation couldn’t challenge the funding of conferences to promote “Faith-Based Intiatives” as taxpayers, who can? Could a citizen challenge faith-based initiatives because of the use of taxpayer money? Is the right of a citizen to sue over spending tax money as absolute as Judge Richard Stearns suggests? And does it need to be so absolute?


Claire said...

This case raises some very interesting questions. I believe that it is the right of a taxpayer to challenge the way in which the government spends their money. If a taxpayer does challenge this by suing then it is the Court’s responsibility to determine those people who deserve to be exempt based on valid religious claims. However, the Court must be wise in its decision to exempt taxpayers and must weigh the good with the bad. For example, the ACLU has a valid case against the USCCB. The USCCB is clearly promulgating a message with which many taxpayers disagree by refusing contraceptive or abortion services to human trafficking victims based on the USCCB religious beliefs. However, the organization is also providing relief to human trafficking victims who may otherwise remain unassisted. In my opinion, this is a good program that deserves the support of the taxpayers at least until a similar program that does not make choices based on religious convictions comes along.

Lauren P said...

Although I think that in some cases taxpayers can and should sue the government for the ways in which their taxes are being spent, I do not think that this is the case at hand. I agree that the program implemented by the USCCB is certainly beneficial and I think that the USCCB’s religious reasoning for not providing contraceptive or birth control is valid. Further, the fact that tax dollars are given to the USCCB to use for its program which has rules based on religious belief does not seem necessarily unconstitutional. If the USCCB was turning away patients based on their religious beliefs, then that would be an entirely different (and unconstitutional) situation. If the USCCB claimed it was not going to hand out contraceptives based on a non-religious basis, would that be more or less legitimate?

E.Levy said...

I think the fact that this is indeed a catholic organization handling taxpayer dollars and making distinctions between candidates based on religious values is extremely troubling. If this were a secular organization and it was clear in their mandate that they don’t provide relief for abortions that would be entirely different than a religious institution making calls with predetermined religious convictions. If a Jewish relief organization, provided aid of everyone as long as they kept kosher were that seem a little absurd. They wouldn’t be denying non -Jews relief, rather they would only be apportioning money to what falls in line with their beliefs, just as we see in this case. This is clearly an example of the government being too entangled, in that they are directly enhancing a religious agenda with tax dollars.