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By Susan Finch
New Orleans – The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in
federal court here Monday (Aug. 13) to stop Louisiana from making
taxpayer-financed donations to two churches.
The gifts targeted in the case — $100,000 to the Stonewall Baptist
Church in Bossier City and $20,000 to Shreveport Christian Church — are
among 14 appropriations that individual state lawmakers requested for
churches in the new state budget signed into law last month by Gov.
Kathleen Blanco.
Charging that earmarking church-related grants in the state budget
is unconstitutional and that the purposes of the grants are only vaguely
described, the ACLU in late June asked Blanco to veto them all, warning
the dispute could end up in court otherwise.
According to the ACLU, the state in certain circumstances can give
money to religious organizations for some programs that provide
nonreligious social services, but the First Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution bars the government from making direct, unrestricted cash
payments to churches.
“The state is doling out gifts to its preferred houses of worship
with taxpayer money,” said ACLU attorney Daniel Mach, director of the
New York-based organization’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
Mach added that in vetoing a $75,000 appropriation for the Southern
University marching band, the governor had said there are many college
marching bands. “How can that possibly be the rule for marching bands
but not churches?” Mach asked.
Joined in the lawsuit by its Louisiana affiliate, the national ACLU
also complains that the state budget calls for no oversight of the money
the Legislature set aside for the two churches.
Mach said the ACLU tried unsuccessfully to get the Legislature to
turn over documents explaining the church grants in detail.
Under a policy adopted earlier this year, House members must fill
out a detailed form when asking for money on behalf of nonprofit groups,
explaining how the money will be used and who will benefit. But the
forms have been declared privileged “work product” and cannot be
publicly released unless the lawmaker sponsoring the amendment agrees in
writing.
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service

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