A case that could test whether the Bush administration has crossed the constitutional line between church and state by channelling federal aid to religious charities was brought before the US Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The case was brought by taxpayers looking for a way to challenge the White House’s “faith-based initiative”, which tries to increase the role of religious groups in fighting poverty, drug addiction and other social problems.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics, says they should be allowed to sue to prove that the White House violated the constitution by spending money on conferences designed to give religious organisations an inside track in obtaining federal grants.

The issue is whether the courthouse door should be open to any taxpayer who wants to challenge such spending on the basis that it violates the constitution, or whether only religious opponents who have been discriminated against directly should be allowed to sue.

A federal appeals court in Chicago sided with the atheist group but the US Justice Department says the ruling should be overturned on the grounds that it could lead to a flood of taxpayer lawsuits challenging all sorts of government spending.

Justice Antonin Scalia said that if the suit was allowed to proceed, taxpayers could challenge White House spending on security for President George W. Bush when he attended religious events, as he often does. Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “We’d be supervising the White House in . . . who it can talk to.”

The case provoked angry exchanges between several justices and lawyers. Justice Stephen Breyer said: “There are strong feelings when government spends money on one religion and not another. We see that in the world today.”

Mr Breyer appeared concerned that if taxpayers could not bring such suits, they could not rein in excessive government involvement with religion – even if government went so far as to build a network of state churches around the country to promote a particular
religion.

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