Report

In Brief: Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation

  • June 12, 2008
  • By Jesse Merriam

In Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2007), the U.S. Supreme Court limited the power of federal courts to enforce the Establishment Clause's restrictions on government funding of religion. In Hein, the high court ruled that unless a legislative body has directly authorized such funding, citizens do not have the right as taxpayers to bring a suit in federal court alleging that the funding violates the Establishment Clause. Although the Hein decision was limited to the narrow issue of when taxpayers have legal standing to pursue Establishment Clause challenges, the ruling has much broader policy implications because it permits executive agencies to fund religious organizations and activities without fear of constitutional litigation.

How did the Hein case get to the U.S. Supreme Court? 

The Hein case involved a constitutional challenge to conferences promoting the faith-based initiative, which was created by President George W. Bush in 2001 to eliminate obstacles that religious social-service organizations faced in competing with secular organizations for federal funding. At these conferences, President Bush and other government officials gave speeches praising the effectiveness of faith-based organizations in providing social services. Members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a church-state watchdog organization, brought a lawsuit alleging that these conferences had violated the Establishment Clause by promoting religion.

A U.S. District Court dismissed the suit on the ground that the members of the watchdog group lacked legal standing, meaning they did not demonstrate a personal interest in the case. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's decision, finding that the group's members, as federal taxpayers, did have standing because the conferences promoted religious activities with federal tax dollars. Administration officials then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, and the high court accepted the request.

Read the complete legal backgrounder Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.