WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that ordinary taxpayers cannot challenge a White House initiative that helps religious charities get a share of federal money.
The 5-4 decision blocks a lawsuit by a group of atheists and agnostics against eight Bush administration officials including the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
The taxpayers' group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., objected to government conferences in which administration officials encourage religious charities to apply for federal grants.
Taxpayers in the case "set out a parade of horribles that they claim could occur" unless the court stopped the Bush administration initiative, wrote Justice Samuel Alito. "Of course, none of these things has happened."
The justices' decision revolved around a 1968 Supreme Court ruling that enabled taxpayers to challenge government programs that promote religion.
The 1968 decision involved the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which financed teaching and instructional materials in religious schools in low-income areas.
"This case falls outside" the narrow exception allowing such cases to proceed, Alito wrote.
In dissent, Justice David Souter said that the court should have allowed the taxpayer challenge to proceed.
The majority "closes the door on these taxpayers because the executive branch, and not the legislative branch, caused their injury," wrote Souter. "I see no basis for this distinction."
With the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, President Bush says he wants to level the playing field. Religious charities and secular charities should compete for government money on an equal footing.
White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore called the ruling "a substantial victory for efforts by Americans to more effectively aid our neighbors in need of help."
She said the faith-based and community initiative can remain focused on "strengthening America's armies of compassion."
The ruling won't block other legal action against the White House initiative, opponents said.
"Most church-state lawsuits, including those that challenge congressional appropriations for faith-based programs, will not be affected," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The outcome of the case before the Supreme Court was disappointing, Lynn said, because "taxpayers should be allowed to challenge public funding of religion, whether the money is allocated by Congress or the White House."
"It's a bad day for the First Amendment. The Supreme Court just put a big dent in the wall of separation between church and state," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People For the American Way Foundation, a liberal-oriented group.
The White House program appears to have had a substantial impact.
In fiscal 2005, seven federal agencies awarded $2.1 billion to religious charities, according to a White House report. That was up 7 percent from the year before and represented 10.9 percent of the grants from the seven federal agencies providing money to faith-based groups.
Among the programs: Substance abuse treatment, housing for AIDS patients, community re-entry for inmates, housing for homeless veterans and emergency food assistance.
The Bush administration says taxpayers should not be allowed to challenge the government's conferences because Congress did not earmark funds for a specific program and no funds were distributed outside the government. The White House pulled money for the conferences out of general appropriations.