NEW ORLEANS - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana filed a lawsuit today asking a federal judge to halt the payment of state taxpayer money to two Louisiana churches.
"The government cannot simply choose to subsidize its favorite houses of worship with taxpayer dollars," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The state's general appropriations bill, HB1, signed into law last month, unconstitutionally directs taxpayer dollars in the amounts of $100,000 to Stonewall Baptist Church in Bossier City and $20,000 to Shreveport Christian Church. The grants were not subject to any oversight or competitive bidding process, and the bill offers no purpose or justification for the challenged earmarks. According to the ACLU, while the state can, in certain circumstances, provide funding to religious organizations for some programs that provide non-religious social services, the First Amendment squarely bars the government from funneling direct, unrestricted, cash payments to churches.
"The state of Louisiana has a responsibility to spend its taxpayers' money in a lawful manner," said Katie Schwartzmann, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. "In this case, none of the requirements is present to allow the funding to pass constitutional muster."
Louisiana residents have long criticized the legislature for using earmarked appropriations bills to fund preferred private entities. The underlying problems of paybacks and slush funds have become increasingly clear following recent reforms that, for the first time, require each earmark to be listed individually. It is now clear that the earmarking process has been hiding unconstitutional efforts to send taxpayer dollars to favored churches for years.
Repeated attempts by the ACLU to learn more about the grants were largely ignored by the state, which refused to respond to several requests for documentation. The ACLU of Louisiana has filed the lawsuit on behalf of itself and its members in an effort to reaffirm the basic constitutional ban on government-funded religious activities.
The lawsuit, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, seeks a court order prohibiting the transfer of taxpayer funds to the churches.
Attorneys on the case are Daniel Mach with the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Katie Schwartzmann with the ACLU of Louisiana.