ACLU Criticizes House Passage of “Public Expression of Religion Act,” Says Bill Weakens Individual Religious Freedom

September 26, 2006
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: media@dcaclu.org

WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today condemned the House of Representatives for adopting H.R. 2679, the "Public Expression of Religion Act of 2005" (PERA). 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 First Amendment.

"The House has once again shown little regard for the Bill of Rights in voting to limit Americans’ ability to keep the government from intruding on religious expression," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "The bill’s supporters claim they are protecting religious freedom, when in fact this bill will undermine it. We are deeply dismayed that the House adopted this proposal and urge the Senate to reject this bill and protect the Constitution."

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. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment protects the religious liberty of all Americans.

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 the Constitution.

The elimination of attorneys’ fees would also deter attorneys from taking cases in which the government has acted unconstitutionally. In many cases, individuals 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 recovery of attorneys’ fees in successful Establishment Clause cases is vital to the enforcement of America’s right to religious freedom," said Terri Ann Schroeder, an ACLU Senior Lobbyist. "Our Constitution’s promise that the government keep its hands off and out of personal religion is in jeopardy. We hope that the Senate will support religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment and put an end to this ridiculous legislation."

The ACLU’s letter on H.R. 2679, the "Public Expression of Religion Act of 2005," is online at:

/religion/gen/26232leg20060725.html

To read more about the ACLU’s fight for religious liberty, go to:

www.aclu.org/religiousliberty

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