Americans United Condemns House Committee Passage Of Bill Cutting Off Attorneys' Fees In Church-state Cases

Measure Is More Pandering To The Religious Right, Says AU's Lynn

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today blasted the House Judiciary Committee’s approval of a bill that would make it more difficult for Americans to challenge church-state violations in court.

The so-called “Public Expression of Religion Act” targets those who stand up to church-state infringements by government officials. The measure, H.R. 2679, denies legal fees and out-of-pocket expenses to plaintiffs who win lawsuits under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bans the government from promoting religion.

The committee passed the bill on a voice vote today, and it is now headed to the House floor.

“It’s remarkable to me that at a time when our country faces so many serious issues, the Judiciary Committee has nothing better to do than pander to the Religious Right with this mean-spirited bill,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It’s another sad example of how this ‘do-nothing Congress’ earned its name.” 

Lynn charged that the bill erodes individual rights. Under current law, Americans whose church-state rights have been violated by the government are free to file lawsuits. If the lawsuits are successful, the law allows for the recovery of reasonable attorneys’ fees and out-of-pocket expenses from the government. If H.R. 2679 were to become law, however, that will no longer be the case.

The measure is being touted by Religious Right groups as a way to discourage lawsuits challenging religious displays on public property. But, in fact, it is much broader than that and would deny reimbursement in conflicts ranging from government-sponsored religion in public schools to taxpayer funding for religious schools and other ministries.

Lynn said if the bill passes, it will set a precedent for Congress to deny attorneys’ fees in other types of litigation. Currently, attorneys’ fees are recoverable in a wide range of successful cases against the government involving constitutional and civil rights violations.

“This bill is nothing more than an attempt to scare people away from having their day in court,” Lynn said. “The House Judiciary Committee should be ashamed of itself for passing such a blatantly un-American scheme.”

Several national organizations that support civil rights and civil liberties have joined forces to oppose the measure.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.