The American Atheist AANews list reported on 3/13 that the American Legion, the largest war veteran’s group in the country, has announced its support for a law, introduced by Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., that would forbid judges from awarding compensatory fees in Establishment Clause cases.
Meeting recently in Washington, DC for its annual convention, the American Legion said that it would launch a new effort on behalf of H.R. 2679, the “Public Expression of Religion Act.” The proposed statute, introduced in March, 2005 by Rep. James Hostettler (R-IN), would amend Section 42 of the United States Code. The introduction states:
“To amend the Revised Statutes of the United States to eliminate the chilling effect on the constitutionally protected expression of religion by State and local officials that results from the threat that potential litigants may seek damages and attorney’s fee.”
Under Section 2 of PERA, the bill provides:
“(b) The remedies with respect to a claim under this section where the deprivation consists of a violation of prohibition in the Constitution against the establishment of religion shall be limited to injunctive relief.”
“(b) Attorneys Fees – Section 722(b) of the Revised Statutes of the United States (42 USC 1988) is amended by adding at the end of the following: ‘However, no fees shall be awarded under this subsection with respect to a claim described in subsection (b) of section nineteen hundred and seventy nine.”
The legislation would amend the Civil Rights Attorney Fees Act to stop courts from awarding legal fees or damages to any individual or group which successfully brings suit under the Establishment of Religion clause of the First Amendment. Supporters of the measure argue that organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have reaped enormous compensation from such actions, costs which are ultimately paid by taxpayers. They add that the mere threat of lawsuits is having a “stifling effect” on religious practices, specifically the public display of the Ten Commandments and other sectarian symbols on public property.
In the Legion’s press release, it said:
“Title 42 U.S. Code, Section 1988 was intended to help the poor obtain legal counsel in claims of real, tangible violations of civil rights,” said Tom Bock, national commander of The American Legion. “To leverage defendants into submission and enrich themselves at the same time, organizations like the ACLU have exploited it.”
A bill pending in the U.S. Congress, the Public Expression of Religion Act (H.R. 2679), would take away the authority of judges to award attorney fees in Establishment Clause cases involving religious heritage, such as veterans’ memorials.
Rep. Hostettler said in his speech to the Legion:
“We need to pass PERA, and we need to pass PERA now,” he said. He urged American Legion members to spread the word to their friends that they oppose “the ACLU and their minions who would enrich themselves at the expense of our Constitution.”
Hostettler closed the speech by saying although the ACLU wouldn’t like him saying so, “May He (God) continue to bless the United States of America.”
The bill would stifle religious dissent because while a government has a boat load of lawyers, all paid for by the tax payers, someone bringing a suit against a government’s illegal action would have to depend on the kindness of a lawyer working for free. Imagine if a minority litigant had to wait for a donation of legal services? Jim Crow might still be in force today.
Suing the government is not like suing your neighbor. In most cases, particularly civil rights cases, the only way for a plaintiff to pay for their legal bills is through the awarding of attorney’s fees.
A government entity facing having to pay legal bills if they lose more often than not will settle the dispute (correct their illegal action) without the ACLU or similar group having to go to court. If this bill would pass, that leverage would be gone and more of these challenges would go to trial or have to be dropped.
As American Atheist President Ellen Johnson put it:
They know, as do we, that most attorneys are simply unable to work on long-term, complex litigation if they don’t receive some compensatory fee,” Johnson said. “We’re not talking about donating a few free hours ‘to the cause.’ These cases require an enormous amount of time and effort.”
Johnson said that governments are often quite willing to squander taxpayer funds in order to defend their unconstitutional practices.
“Whether it is school prayer or defending a religious monument in the public square, state and local governments are frequently very short-sighted and belligerent when caught doing something that violates the First Amendment,” Johnson said. “If the Legion and Representative Hostettler really wish to save all of us some money, they should work to stop unconstitutional practices that promote religion.”
What also disturbs me is the group representing war veterans, the same people who like to claim they fought for our rights, would support such un-American law in the name of religion.
When did special rights for religion become more important than the Constitution?