Americans United Urges House Committee To Defeat Bill Cutting Off Attorneys' Fees In Church-state Cases

'Mean-Spirited' Measure Seeks To Discourage Americans From Asserting Their Fundamental Religious Liberty Rights In Court, Says AU's Lynn

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged the House Judiciary Committee to reject a bill that would make it more difficult for Americans to bring church-state violations into court.

The so-called “Public Expression of Religion Act” targets those who challenge 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. It is scheduled for a vote in committee on Wednesday.

“This is a mean-spirited bill intended to keep people from standing up for their religious liberty rights,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and state. “Our constitutional freedoms don’t count for much if individuals don’t have the financial means to bring their legitimate claims before the bar of justice.

“Once again, we see the House leadership kowtowing to the Religious Right at the expense of individual freedom,” said Lynn.

Americans who believe that government has violated their rights by unconstitutionally getting involved in matters of religion are free to file lawsuits. If the lawsuits are successful, current federal law allows for the recovery of reasonable attorneys’ fees and out-of-pocket expenses. If H.R. 2679 passes, 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 more sweeping 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 noted that 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.

“Americans should have the right to seek redress in courts if they believe their rights have been violated by the government,” Lynn said. “This bill is an effort to slam the courthouse door in their faces because some members of Congress don’t like the outcome of some of these cases. It’s fundamentally un-American.”

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.