James J. Kilpatrick

Circuit Judge Richard Posner ranks among the ablest judges on the federal bench, but his opinion in this case a year ago was not his best work. He murkily defined the "only question" before his panel as "whether a taxpayer can ever have standing under Article III of the Constitution to litigate an alleged violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause unless Congress has earmarked money for the program or activity that is challenged." He added, helpfully:

"The prudential principles of standing, like other common law principles, are protean and mutable (the term 'prudential' is the very antithesis of a definite rule or standard)."

Seeking to explain his point, Posner ventured into a hypothetical example: "Suppose the secretary of homeland security, who has unearmarked funds in his budget, decided to build a mosque and pay an imam a salary to preach in it because the secretary believed that federal financial assistance to Islam would reduce the likelihood of Islamist terrorism in the United States."

In such a far-fetched event, clearly involving a significant expenditure "respecting an establishment of religion," grounds obviously could be found for a taxpayers' suit. But suppose the challenged action, as in this case, involves only a presidential initiative of both sectarian and non-sectarian application? How discretionary is a president's discretion? How trivial is trivial?

Posner's point, after 16 rambling pages, is that taxpayers have standing to challenge any presidential program that promotes religion, even if the program is created entirely by presidential order and not by specific statute. Posner cannot quote a "law made by Congress." There is none.

In a spirited dissent, Judge Kenneth F. Ripple challenged Posner's "dramatic expansion" of well established rules on "standing." The general rule is that suit may be brought only by a plaintiff who has "personally suffered actual or threatened injury as a result of the putatively illegal conduct of a defendant." Here the named plaintiffs -- Anne Nicol Gaylor, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker -- have personally suffered no tangible injury whatever. If they have "standing" to sue, it is standing that rests upon a foundation of very swampy law.

Judge Kilpatrick, meaning me, joins Judge Ripple in dissent. If the president has abused his powers, impeach the fellow! Go ahead! The Senate would never convict. Meanwhile, don't mess with the First Amendment.


James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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