WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday made it harder for taxpayers to bring court challenges of government programs that aid religious organizations, throwing out a lawsuit against an Arizona tax-credit program that helps private schools.
The 5-4 decision split the court along ideological lines, and prompted the first written dissent by Justice Elena Kagan. She criticized the court's majority and the Obama administration, in which she served, for its arguments on Arizona's behalf. The ruling, "threatens to eliminate all occasions for a taxpayer to contest the government's monetary support of religion," she wrote.
In general, individual taxpayers do not have the legal right, or "standing," to challenge spending decisions of government. But the Supreme Court in the 1968 decision Flast vs. Cohen agreed to a narrow exception when the spending is alleged to violate the Constitution's prohibition on establishing religion.
Monday's ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, emphasized how narrow the exemption was. And he said the court should be careful about getting involved in disputes between taxpayers and their representatives.
For 13 years, Arizona has allowed a resident to send up to $500 of the money he owes the state in income taxes — $1,000 for a married couple — to a private "student tuition organization." In other words, if a couple owed the state $2,000, they could send half the money to the state treasury and half to one of the tuition organizations.
The organizations, which receive about $55 million a year, provide scholarships to private schools, often religious ones. The largest groups benefit Catholic schools in the Phoenix area.
Challengers said the program was unconstitutional because it transferred funds that otherwise would have gone to the state treasury. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said their suit could go forward.
The high court disagreed. The ruling did not directly hold the Arizona program constitutional, but said those objecting had no standing to challenge it.