ALEX CHADWICK, host:
At the Supreme Court today, the Bush administration is defending one of its most cherished programs, that called Faith-Based Initiatives. There are suits filed by taxpayers who say this is promoting religion. Slate.com's Dahlia Lithwick was at the court for the arguments. She joins us now. Dahlia, first, more on President Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiative program.
Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK: Sure, Alex. The background is pretty straight forward. In 2001, by executive order, the president created this Faith-Based and Community Initiatives plan which was supposed to make it easier for religious groups to provide social services. And specifically, what he did was have some conferences. The purpose of those conferences was supposed to sort of lower the barriers between federal services and religious groups who wanted to provide services.
CHADWICK: Okay, so the conferences take place, and so now why are people suing here?
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, not surprisingly, the atheists finding this offensive. In 2004, a group called Freedom From Religion Foundation and a bunch of individual taxpayers sued the director of this program, claiming that the president is spending taxpayer dollars to promote religion and that that violates the religion clause of the first amendment. The legal question today is not the merits of that problem, though. It's a much more technical question - it's a matter of legal standing. And the question is, essentially, do the taxpayers here have the right to sue the government for spending money in this way?
Normally, the answer is no. You don't get to sue the government just because you don't like where your tax dollars are going. But there's a 1968 case that carved out this very narrow exception that said that yes, when congress is using its tax and spend powers to promote religion, then, in fact, you have this little mouse hole where you can get in and sue as a taxpayer. And the question is do these guys get through this mouse hole today?
CHADWICK: So would this question of standing actually resolve the argument over whether or not this is a religion-based program, or - as the administration says - look, we give money to lots of people who help community groups, and some of them are affiliated with churches and many of them are not.
Ms. LITHWICK: Not really. That question hasn't yet been litigated. We're still trying to decide if these guys can get into court. And so, presumably, if they're allowed to go forward with their lawsuit, if it's determined that they do have standing, then that question is the next thing up. But we're not there today.
CHADWICK: Well, how did the arguments go? Did you get some sense of where the court might be on this?
Ms. LITHWICK: This was one of the all time funny days at oral argument. I think Justice Scalia probably had about 20 hilarious riffs. And, and one of the great moments was when he started picking on the lawyer for this atheist group, saying how is it different to have a faith-based program or to allow the executive branch to buy bagels for a prayer breakfast?
And they kept going on and on, Alex, about the bagels for this evangelical prayer breakfast until Scalia couldn't stand it anymore, and he popped out with, wait a minute. What could be worse than not buying bagels for a Jewish prayer breakfast? And that's essentially the way it went. We argued by sort of parades of horribles and lots of wacky analogies about what would be permissible government spending in religion and what wouldn't.
CHADWICK: Dahlia Lithwick, Slate.com's Supreme Court reporter, a DAY TO DAY regular contributor. Dahlia, thanks again.
Ms. LITHWICK: My pleasure, Alex.
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