FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today urged the House Judiciary Committee to reject H.R. 2679, the "Public Expression of Religion Act of 2005" (PERA). The panel is expected to vote on the legislation today. The bill would bar the recovery of attorneys’ fees to citizens who win lawsuits asserting their fundamental constitutional and civil rights in cases brought under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
"If this bill were to become law, Congress would, for the first time, single out one area protected by the Bill of Rights and prevent its full enforcement," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "Proponents of the measure claim that the bill is needed to protect religious freedom, when in fact, the bill would undermine it. We hope that the committee will stand for the Constitution and reject this unwise proposal."
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 themselves when the government violates their religious freedom. 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.
"The ability to recover attorneys’ fees in successful cases is an essential component of the enforcement of an American’s right to religious freedom," said Terri Ann Schroeder, an ACLU Senior Lobbyist. "The right to keep religion government-free and ensure that government keeps its hands off and out of religion is in jeopardy. We hope that lawmakers will see through the absurd myths put out by PERA’s advocates and will support religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment."
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