Federal court denies taxpayer challenge to funding of giant cross
It’s frustrating when government officials divert taxpayer dollars for religious purposes. But it’s really exasperating when church-state separation activists are denied the right to challenge that funding in court.
Yet increasingly, that is what’s happening.
Yesterday, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an Illinois man named Rob Sherman had no legal right to challenge a $20,000 grant that state officials had awarded to refurbish the Bald Knob Cross of Peace, a towering religious symbol near Alto Pass.
Sherman, a former radio talk show host and atheist activist, is a longtime resident of the Chicago area and a taxpayer. So why couldn’t he win legal standing to challenge taxpayer funding of what is obviously a Christian icon?
Supreme Court decisions have allowed taxpayers to only challenge tax funding that is linked to legislative action. This grant was an earmark pushed by an individual state senator.
Yet the appeals court held that the grant could not be challenged because it wasn’t listed in any piece of legislation, and was instead awarded in a back-room legislative conference. This rather mundane fact, the court ruled, shielded the appropriation from legal action.
A group called Friends of the Cross is raising money to refurbish the structure, which at 111 feet is said to be one of the largest crosses in the Western Hemisphere. The organization holds Easter sunrise services at the site.
The cross’s website talks about the history of the area. Although supporters claim the mountaintop was designed as a place “where people of all denominations could gather for worship,” Christian groups raised the money for the project and have supported it since 1937.
Given that the site features an enormous representation of the central symbol of Christianity, it’s unlikely members of other denominations would want to worship there – and of course non-believers don’t want to worship there or anywhere else.
Yet all taxpayers of Illinois – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, etc. – have been compelled to pay for the upkeep of this sectarian symbol. Sure, the amount in question is relatively small, but that’s irrelevant.
As James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, once observed, “The same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one [religious] establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.”
Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case, Sherman v. State of Illinois, arguing that Sherman should have the right to pursue litigation. Unfortunately, due to this bad ruling, he’ll never get his day in court.
Increasingly, the U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts are making it harder for taxpayers to challenge government programs that fund religion. In 2007, the high court ruled that the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) had no right to challenge White House conferences promoting the faith-based initiative.
Writing for a three-justice plurality, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. ruled that FFRF had no right to sue over White House promotion of the faith-based initiative because the money came from the president’s discretionary funds, not a congressional appropriation. This created a loophole big enough for trucks full of taxpayer money to barrel through, bound for houses of worship all over the country. (Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted to abolish taxpayers’ rights to sue entirely.)
Americans United and other defenders of the church-state wall do our best to defend church-state separation in court. Of course, we always hope to win every case we file and always make our best argument. If we win, we celebrate that. If we lose, we accept it and move on.
We don’t like losing but can accept it. What we shouldn’t have to accept is seeing the courthouse door slammed in our face before we even get a chance to make our argument.