The Supreme Court took one step closer to erasing the line between church and state when it threw out a lawsuit challenging Arizona’s practice of using tax credits to help students attend private and religious schools. The 5-4 ruling in he combined cases of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, et al and Garriott v. Winn, et al split along ideological lines signaling clear approval of educational vouchers by the conservative majority.
The law at issue allows Arizonans to get a dollar-for-dollar credit on what they owe the state in income taxes for money they donate to organizations that provide scholarships for private and parochial schools. According to reports, in the 2009 tax year Arizonans diverted more than $50.8 million to the scholarship organization–money that would otherwise go into the state’s public school system.
But this case is significant for more than just its embrace of public financing of private religious education. It is significant because the conservative majority threw the case out on the ground that the challengers, as taxpayers, did not have proper standing to sue, marking a significant blow to the constitutional practice of taxpayer standing.
The whole premise of taxpayer standing is that taxpayers have a right to challenge government action–in this case government programs providing indirect state subsidies for religion. In the majority’s decision Justice Kennedy drew a clear line–taxpayer standing exists really only to challenge direct government spending, not indirect subsidies as is the case in Arizona.
Writing for the minority, Justice Kagan took this distinction head-on, arguing that the majority had manufactured this difference. Taxpayers pick up the cost in either system, Kagan wrote. According to the majority’s logic, a taxpayer could then sue to challenge a tax subsidy but not a tax break, despite the fact that both represent tax expenditures.
But if you take that differentiation, and you place it in the context of Justice Kennedy’s emphasis on keeping access to the federal courts limited it becomes even clearer that what the conservative majority was truly concerned with was protecting the federal courts, and thusly the government, from having to answer to the taxpayer.
photo courtesy of Michael 1952 via Flickr