Religious Right Groups Seek Limits On Church-state Lawsuits

Don't Discourage Americans From Asserting Their Religious Liberty Rights In Court, Americans United's Lynn Urges Senate Panel

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution not to make it more difficult for Americans to bring church-state violations into court.

The subcommittee is hearing testimony today from lawyers affiliated with TV preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on a proposal to deny legal fees and out-of-pocket expenses to plaintiffs who win lawsuits under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. They are supporting S. 3696, “The Veterans’ Memorials, Boy Scouts, Public Seals, and Other Public Expressions of Religion Protection Act.”

The proposal 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 far-reaching and would deny reimbursement in conflicts ranging from government-sponsored religion in public schools to taxpayer funding for religious schools and other ministries.

“This bill is intended to make it harder for people to stand up for their religious liberty,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It would be an outrage if Falwell and Robertson got away with this. 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.”

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 S. 3696 passes, however, that will no longer be the case.

Lynn noted that the bill would have a severe negative impact on religious minorities. The New York Times reported Monday on a Jewish family in Delaware that is challenging majority intolerance by officials, staff and students at their local public school. The proposal under consideration in the Senate would make it much more financially difficult  for them to bring a lawsuit.

Lynn also asserted 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 ability to seek justice in the 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 church-state 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.