State Sponsored Religion: Whose Cross to Bear?

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Tomorrow, October 7th, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Salazar v. Buono, a case with a complicated litigation history that now poses a simple, potentially devastating challenge to constitutional prohibitions on establishing religion. In Salazar, the Court is being asked to limit dramatically--or virtually eliminate--the right of taxpayers to sue the federal government for maintaining sectarian religious symbols on public property.  If the Court seizes the opportunity and denies taxpayer standing to challenge federally sponsored religious displays, then constitutional prohibitions of such displayys will be effectively unenforceable; in other words, at least in part, the establishment clause will be merely hortatory.
The Salazar case began in 2001, when a former national park service employee, Frank Buono, sued the government seeking removal of an eight-foot cross from federal land. (The cross was erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1934 in commemoration of World War I vets and has long enjoyed favored religious status.  In 1999, the Parks Service declined a request to erect a Buddhist memorial in the vicinity of the cross.) Buono won his case in Federal District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004, prompting Congress to transfer the property underlying the cross to the VFW. Buono went back to court for another round and obtained a second ruling from the 9th Circuit, in 2007, invalidating the property transfer and ordering removal of the cross.  It is this 2007 ruling that is now before the Supreme Court, and it is in this second round of litigation that Buono's standing to sue has become a central issue on appeal.

The government did not appeal the 9th Circuit's 2004 ruling supporting Buono's challenge, meaning that it did not then challenge its initial standing.  Buono, represented by the ACLU, argues that the government is procedurally foreclosed from raising the standing question now, giving the Court a good reason to avoid answering it.  But the Court's conservative majority has been relatively hostile to establishment clause challenges (Justice Thomas would not even apply prohibitions on establishing religion to the states), and in 2007, in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Court held that taxpayers lack standing to challenge executive branch expenditures that allegedly violate the establishment clause. (Hein involved an ill-conceived challenge by the Freedom from Religion Foundation to executive branch actions promoting the Administration's "faith-based" initiative; the Court didn't decide the merits of FFRF's establishment clause claim since it denied the group standing to sue.) Salazar, however, involves Congressional action; and in Hein, the plurality opinion distinguished challenges to congressional appropriations from challenges to discretionary executive spending.   
But the distinction in Hein between congressional and executive expenditures in establishment clause cases seemed merely politic (if not downright cynical); it allowed the Court to appear respectful of precedent (mainly Flast v. Cohen), allowing taxpayers to mount establishment clause challenges to Congressional spending. Justice Scalia, who at least has the courage of his theocratic convictions, chided the plurality in Hein for its incoherent "minimalism," stressing that the logic of the Court's opinion required it to overrule Flast; as he trenchantly stated, the plurality relied on

"the creation of utterly meaningless distinctions which separate the case at hand from the precedents that have come out differently, but which cannot possibly be (in any sane world) the reason it comes out differently ... laying just claim to be honoring stare decisis requires more than beating Flast to a pulp and then sending it out to the lower courts weakened, denigrated, more incomprehensible than ever, and yet somehow technically alive."

Salazar gives the Roberts court an opportunity to take Flast off life support, ending taxpayer suits against congressional as well as executive branch expenditures in many--if not most, if not all--establishment clause cases.  In Hein, the 7th Circuit had upheld FFRF's right to challenge executive branch actions promoting religion; as Judge Posner observed (hypothetically), recognizing a controlling difference between congressional appropriations and discretionary executive spending in an establishment clause case could prohibit taxpayer suits against such gross constitutional violations as a decision by the Homeland Security Department to "build a mosque and pay an Imam a salary to preach in it," in the hope of reducing terrorism.  Or as FFRF argued before the Supreme Court, denying taxpayer standing to challenge executive branch expenditures establishing religion would effectively immunize from taxpayer suits the use of discretionary executive branch funding to purchase and distribute sectarian religious symbols, award government contracts on the basis of religious belief, or otherwise engage in direct proselytizing.

'Hallelujah," groups opposing taxpayer establishment clause challenges might respond; enabling government funding of sectarian religious (especially Christian) symbols and activities as their goal.  People who object to officially sponsored sectarianism or official religious favoritism (at issue in the Salazar case) are merely "offended observers," the American Center for Law and Justice asserts, implicitly characterizing the constitutional prohibition on establishing religion as a mere form of political correctness.

Madison and Jefferson might disagree, but Justice Scalia has already made clear his support for government promotion of religious belief: the First Amendment "permits (the) disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists," Scalia declared in a 2005 case, dissenting from a decision invalidating an official Ten Commandments display.  (Not that the Court is generally or categorically hostile to official religious displays; in a companion case, it rejected a challenge to a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol.)

Scalia's support for official expressions of bias against non-theists or polytheists partly reflects a majoritarian approach to church/state issues, generally shared by opponents of taxpayer establishment clause cases.  The remedy for government action establishing religion should be political, they argue: if you suffer discrimination or simply alienation as a result of state sponsored religion, or if you object to discrimination suffered by religious minorities, your remedy is said to be political, not judicial. You should seek redress from your elected representatives, not from the courts. The trouble is that your elected representatives respond to majority opinion and majority biases in favor of religious beliefs (especially mainstream beliefs), which is precisely why freedom of and from religion was enshrined in the Bill of Rights, to be protected by the courts from majority rule.

That was then. The Supreme Court has already effectively immunized the executive branch from taxpayer lawsuits challenging establishment clause violations.  In deciding Salazar it could immunize Congress as well.  In these cases, the Court would then save itself the trouble (that Chief Justice Marshall imposed on it 200 years ago,) of deciding "what the law is," and "whether an act, repugnant to the constitution, can become the law of the land."  As veteran legal aid attorneys used to say, decades ago, "The Constitution has no standing in Brooklyn."  It will be no joke if the Salazar case helps ensure that the establishment clause has no standing, and not just in Brooklyn.

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