Legislating Violations of the Constitution

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By Erwin Chemerinsky
Special to washingtonpost.com
Saturday, September 30, 2006; 12:00 AM

With little public attention or even notice, the House of Representatives has passed a bill that undermines enforcement of the First Amendment's separation of church and state. The Public Expression of Religion Act - H.R. 2679 - provides that attorneys who successfully challenge government actions as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment shall not be entitled to recover attorneys fees. The bill has only one purpose: to prevent suits challenging unconstitutional government actions advancing religion.

A federal statute, 42 United States Code section 1988, provides that attorneys are entitled to recover compensation for their fees if they successfully represent a plaintiff asserting a violation of his or her constitutional or civil rights. For example, a lawyer who successfully sues on behalf of a victim of racial discrimination or police abuse is entitled to recover attorney's fees from the defendant who acted wrongfully. Any plaintiff who successfully sues to remedy a violation of the Constitution or a federal civil rights statute is entitled to have his or her attorney's fees paid.

Congress adopted this statute for a simple reason: to encourage attorneys to bring cases on behalf of those whose rights have been violated. Congress was concerned that such individuals often cannot afford an attorney and vindicating constitutional rights rarely generates enough in damages to pay a lawyer on a contingency fee basis.

Without this statute, there is no way to compensate attorneys who successfully sue for injunctions to stop unconstitutional government behavior. Congress rightly recognized that attorneys who bring such actions are serving society's interests by stopping the government from violating the Constitution. Indeed, the potential for such suits deters government wrong-doing and increases the likelihood that the Constitution will be followed.

The attorneys' fees statute has worked well for almost 30 years. Lawyers receive attorneys' fees under the law only if their claim is meritorious and they win in court. Unsuccessful lawyers get nothing under the law. This creates a strong disincentive to frivolous suits and encourages lawyers to bring only clearly meritorious ones.

Despite the effectiveness of this statute, conservatives in the House of Representatives have now passed an insidious bill to try and limit enforcement of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, by denying attorneys fees to lawyers who successfully challenge government actions as violating this key constitutional provision. For instance, a lawyer who successfully challenged unconstitutional prayers in schools or unconstitutional symbols on religious property or impermissible aid to religious groups would -- under the bill -- not be entitled to recover attorneys' fees. The bill, if enacted, would treat suits to enforce the Establishment Clause different from litigation to enforce all of the other provisions of the Constitution and federal civil rights statutes.

Such a bill could have only one motive: to protect unconstitutional government actions advancing religion. The religious right, which has been trying for years to use government to advance their religious views, wants to reduce the likelihood that their efforts will be declared unconstitutional. Since they cannot change the law of the Establishment Clause by statute, they have turned their attention to trying to prevent its enforcement by eliminating the possibility for recovery of attorneys' fees.

Those who successfully prove the government has violated their constitutional rights would, under the bill, be required to pay their own legal fees. Few people can afford to do so. Without the possibility of attorneys' fees, individuals who suffer unconstitutional religious persecution often will be unable to sue. The bill applies even to cases involving illegal religious coercion of public school children or blatant discrimination against particular religions.

The passage of this bill by the House is a disturbing achievement by those who seek to undermine our nation's commitment to fundamental freedoms laid out in the Constitution. Should it come up for a vote, it is imperative that the Senate reject this nefarious proposal. The religious right is looking for a way to get away with violating the Establishment Clause and is now one step closer to this goal. The Establishment Clause is no less important than any other part of the Bill of Rights and suits to enforce it should be treated no differently than any other litigation to enforce civil liberties and civil rights

Erwin Chemerinsky is the Alston & Bird Professor of Law and Political Science, at Duke University.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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