Notre Dame May Keep Funds For Training Teachers, Appeals Court Rules

A federal appeals court has ruled that Notre Dame University cannot be forced to repay public funds it spent training Catholic school teachers, fallout from a Supreme Court ruling last year that curtailed the right of taxpayers to sue.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Oct. 14 that two taxpayers do not have the right to sue the school over a $500,000 federal grant the university received in 2000, reported The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The taxpayers, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued in 2003 after learning that Notre Dame spent the grant to train Catholic school teachers at its Alliance for Catholic Education. The Alliance trains teachers to work in Catholic schools in low-income neighborhoods, a move the taxpayers said violated church-state separation.

The plaintiffs noted that Notre Dame admitted that during the program, teachers are offered “opportunities for spiritual growth, including prayer services, Mass, course work and retreats.” Officials at Notre Dame countered that no one was forced to take part in religious activities.

Jacquelyn Bowie Suess, an ACLU attorney, said the program was “extremely religious” and that Notre Dame officials “glossed over that,” when describing the plan to the government.

The 7th Circuit never decided that question. Instead, the judges threw the case out over “standing” – the right to sue. The taxpayers, the court said, had no right to challenge a congressional earmark that had already been spent.

The decision in the Laskowski v. Spellings case cited a 2007 Supreme Court ruling called Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation. In Hein, the high court narrowed the circumstances under which taxpayers can sue to challenge money being appropriated for religious groups.

The 7th Circuit said the ruling in Hein means taxpayers have no right to sue over earmarked grants that have already been disbursed and spent.