High-court rulings are wins for GOP, president

Seattle Times article June 27, 2007 

Major rulings on Campaign ads, Faith-based programs, Speech, Endangered species, reveals conservative strength on Supreme Court with Justice Kennedy as the swing man. 

WASHINGTON — In two important victories for President Bush and Republican interests, the Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for corporate-funded broadcast ads before next year’s election and shielded the White House’s “faith-based initiative” from challenge in the courts. 

Both came in 5-4 rulings led by new Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by Bush in 2005. 

The first decision will allow corporate and union money to play a bigger role in political campaigns, and the second will allow federal money to continue to flow to church groups and religious organizations that do charitable work or provide social services. 

The first case involved the McCain-Feingold Act passed by Congress five years ago. Part of the law banned pre-election “issue ads” that mention a candidate’s name if they were paid for with corporate or union money. The court’s decision Monday went a long way toward striking down that ban. 

Although unusual alliances lined up on each side, the ruling is expected to benefit Republican causes because more campaign-advertising money, generally speaking, is spent to support the GOP. 

While labor unions and their Democratic allies also will benefit from the ruling, Republicans and business interests led the challenge to the restrictions on pre-election broadcast ads. 

Critics of the decision said it will encourage a financial race between well-heeled special-interest groups. 

Monday’s Supreme Court rulings

 

Campaign ads: Loosened restrictions on corporate- and union-funded political advertising close to elections. 

“Faith-based” programs: Ruled that ordinary taxpayers cannot challenge a White House initiative that helps religious charities get a share of federal money. 

Speech: Said schools can regulate student speech that advocates use of illegal drugs. 

Endangered species: Sided with the Bush administration and developers in limiting the reach of the Endangered Species Act. 

“This is a big win for big money,” League of Women Voters President Mary Wilson said in a statement. “Chief Justice Roberts has reopened the door to corruption.” 

Justice David Souter, in writing for the minority, said: “After today, the ban on contributions by corporations and unions, and the limitation on their corrosive spending when they enter the political arena, are open to easy circumvention.” 

The McCain-Feingold Act originally had been strongly opposed by the Republican National Committee, but President Bush reluctantly signed it into law. He, too, had questioned whether it was constitutional. 

The portion of the law in question says corporate entities cannot use money from their general treasuries to broadcast ads that run 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election, and mention a federal candidate by name. 

Forbidding the naming of candidates was seen by authors of the law as a restriction to do away with “sham” issue ads that purport to be about a controversy but amount to an attack on a candidate. 

The Supreme Court in 2003 said the “vast majority” of such issue ads fell into the category of electioneering and upheld the restriction as constitutional. But last year, the justices ruled that groups could challenge the law based on specific applications. 

The case decided Monday involves a group called Wisconsin Right to Life, which was restricted by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from running ads in 2004 that urged listeners to call the state’s two senators and tell them not to block President Bush’s judicial nominees. 

One of the senators — Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., one of the sponsors of the law — was up for re-election at the time and had been targeted for defeat by the anti-abortion group. 

The court’s majority rejected the argument of the law’s defenders that the intent of the organization should be considered and said the important aspect of the ad was whether or not it advocated the election or defeat of a specific candidate. 

Roberts was joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed. 

Parties from across the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, fought the ban. 

A first test of the impact of the court’s opinion could come as early as December, a month before presidential caucuses and primaries in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina open the nomination process. 

The decision means the FEC likely will have to step in and write specific rules about advertising that reflect the court’s opinion. The commission may face pressure to act before the end of the year. 

Faith-based programs 

In the second decision, the court also backed Bush’s faith-based programs from challenge by those who say they want to keep church and state separate. 

Taxpayers lack the legal standing necessary to take Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to court, justices ruled. It’s a technical ruling but still a pronounced victory for the Bush administration and its church allies. 

Bush established the faith-based office in January 2001 as one of his first steps as president. The stated goal was to assist faith-based organizations in competing for federal funding. Bush also established faith-based centers in federal agencies such as the Agriculture Department and Labor Department. 

White House officials began holding conferences and making speeches in support of religious organizations. Federal dollars began flowing in new directions. 

In Fresno, Calif., for instance, a faith-based group called Stone Soup deploys federal dollars to serve Hmong refugees. In Dallas, Crossroads Community Services received help in providing food and clothing to the poor. In Clearwater, Fla., faith-based workers assist ex-cons in making the transition out of prison. 

The number of federal grants to faith-based organizations increased 38 percent between 2003 and 2005, and the dollar amount increased by 21 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office. 

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation challenged the White House office, contending that the faith-based federal actions violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. 

This provision states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” The White House uses money provided by Congress to operate the government’s faith-based offices and to finance grants to faith-based groups. 

Alito, speaking for the majority, said Bush’s program did not involve a congressional appropriation that was targeted to further religion. Instead, it involved federal officials urging church groups and others to participate in charitable work that was funded by the government. 

In these circumstances, taxpayers do not have standing to object, Alito said. 

Roberts and Kennedy joined him. Scalia and Thomas said they would go further and forbid taxpayers from challenging religious spending in all circumstances. 

 

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