ACLU Condemns House Panel's Passage of "Public Expression of Religion Act," Calls Bill A Direct Attack on Freedom of Religion
WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today expressed its dismay as the House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 2679, the "Public Expression of Religion Act of 2005" (PERA). The bill would bar the recovery of attorneys' fees to those who win lawsuits asserting their fundamental constitutional and civil rights in cases brought under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
"If PERA were to pass, Congress would isolate and discourage enforcement of a specific piece of our Bill of Rights," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "PERA advocates are seriously misguided in their claim of defending religious freedom. This legislation would in fact weaken the very freedom they claim to be protecting. We are deeply disappointed in the committee's decision to allow PERA to come to a vote."
The ACLU said the ability to recover attorneys' fees in civil rights and constitutional cases, including Establishment Clause cases, is necessary to help protect the religious freedom of all Americans and to keep religion government-free. People who successfully prove the government has violated their constitutional rights would, under the bill, be required to pay their own legal fees -- often totaling tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Few citizens can afford to do so. But more importantly, citizens should not be required to do so where the court finds that the government has violated their rights and engaged in unconstitutional behavior.
The elimination of attorneys' fees would also deter attorneys from taking cases in which the government has acted unconstitutionally. In many cases, religious minorities would be unable to obtain legal representation to defend them in instances when their religious freedom has been violated by the government. The bill would apply even to cases involving illegal religious coercion of public school children or blatant discrimination against particular religions.
The ACLU noted that proponents of the bill have been spreading myths that religious symbols on gravestones at military cemeteries will be threatened without passage of PERA. In fact, religious symbols on grave markers in military cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery, are entirely constitutional. Religious symbols on personal gravestones are vastly different from government-sponsored religious symbols or religious symbols on government-owned property.
"In order to enforce and protect every American's right to religious freedom, ordinary Americans must be able to recover attorneys' fees in successful cases," said Terri Ann Schroeder, an ACLU Senior Lobbyist. "PERA would undermine the fundamental protections of the First Amendment. We urge the full House to reject this attack on religious liberty, and stand for religion free from government entanglement."
The ACLU's letter on H.R. 2679, the "Public Expression of Religion Act of 2005," is online at: www.aclu.org/religion/gen/26232leg20060725.html