House Passes Measure on Religion Suits

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The House passed a bill yesterday that would bar judges from awarding legal fees to the American Civil Liberties Union and similar groups that sue municipalities for violating the Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion.

Though the bill would prevent plaintiffs from recovering legal costs in any lawsuit based on the Establishment Clause, House Republicans said during a floor debate that it was particularly aimed at organizations that force the removal of Nativity scenes and Ten Commandments monuments from public property.

"Liberal groups . . . scour the country looking to sue cities and states with any kind of religious display, regardless of how popular these displays are," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.). Because judges often require municipalities that lose such lawsuits to reimburse their opponents' legal fees, "citizens' precious monuments are being eroded with their own tax dollars," she added.

The bill, called the Public Expressions of Religion Protection Act, passed 244 to 173 on a mostly party-line vote.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, said the measure is "election-year red meat for the Christian right, because they've been complaining they haven't gotten enough from this Congress."

Fredrickson added that it appears unlikely the Senate will pass the bill.

"But we're watching it, because it is designed to do real damage to First Amendment protections," she said. "What the backers of this legislation are leaving out of the discussion is that fees are only awarded when we've been successful in showing that someone's constitutional rights have been violated."

The American Legion, the Southern Baptist Convention and other conservative groups began pushing for the legislation after a Pennsylvania judge awarded $2 million to the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The two groups had successfully sued the school board in Dover, Pa., for requiring science teachers to teach "intelligent design" alongside evolution. The award was later reduced to $1 million.

Conservative groups were also irked when a judge awarded $550,000 to three groups -- Americans United, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU of Alabama -- after they prevailed in a lawsuit against former Alabama chief justice Roy S. Moore's display of the Ten Commandments.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.), said the ACLU and similar groups are "profiteering" as well as seeking "to remove every vestige of our religious heritage from public places."

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