A group can sue the federal government over claims that President
Bush’s faith-based initiative is an unconstitutional endorsement of
religion, a federal appeals court ruled.

A three-judge panel of
the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday reinstated the lawsuit
brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group claims
Bush’s program, which helps religious organizations get government
funding to provide social services, violates the separation of church
and state.

“Bush says this is constitutional, but it’s never been
tried by the courts. So we’re pleased,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor,
co-president of the foundation, said Saturday.

Bush sidestepped
Congress by issuing executive orders to create the White House Office
of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and similar centers in 10
federal agencies during his first term. He said the goal was to help
religious and community groups compete for federal funding to fight
poverty, substance abuse and other social problems.

Madison-based foundation filed suit against the administration in 2004.
A federal district judge dismissed the case, ruling that taxpayers have
no standing to challenge funding appropriations made by the executive
branch, only those earmarked for specific purposes by Congress.

the appeals panel, based in Chicago, said taxpayers can challenge
executive-branch programs that allegedly promote religion using
taxpayer funds.

George Washington University law professor Ira C.
Lupu said the case is the broadest national challenge to Bush’s
initiative, but the group faces an uphill battle proving it is

Messages left at the White House’s faith-based
office and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Madison were not immediately
returned Saturday. The government could ask the full appeals court to
rehear the case or appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.