WASHINGTON - June 22 - Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution to reject a bill that would cut off reasonable attorneys’ fees in church-state cases.
The measure, known as the “Public Expression of Religion Act” (H.R. 2679), would deny attorneys who get involved in church-state cases the ability to recover any of the legal fees and out-of-pocket expenses incurred in such litigation.
“This bill is a punitive measure clearly designed to scare Americans from participating in church-state cases,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It would have a chilling effect on every citizen’s right to access our courts and would be particularly harmful to religious minorities.”
Around the country, national organizations and individual attorneys sometimes file litigation on behalf of local plaintiffs who believe that government has violated their rights by unconstitutionally getting involved in matters of religion. If the litigation is successful, the law allows for the recovery of reasonable attorneys’ fees and out-of-pocket expenses. The sums recovered are usually determined after negotiations among all parties and a federal court.
Lynn said if this bill passes, there will be nothing to prevent Congress from denying attorneys’ fees in other types of cases. Currently, attorneys’ fees are recoverable in all successful cases involving constitutional and civil rights violations.
“Every year, ordinary Americans who believe their religious liberty rights have been violated seek redress in the courts,” Lynn said. “In many cases, they seek outside legal help and are not charged a dime for the services they get. This proposed legislation is an attempt to punish those people and their attorneys because some members of Congress and the Religious Right do not like the cases they pursue.”
In a June 22 letter to the House Constitution Subcommittee, AU’s Lynn asserted, “H.R. 2679 is an extreme and unwise proposal that will deter Americans from seeking to enforce in the federal courts their fundamental constitutional rights to worship freely and to make decisions about religion for themselves and their families, without interference or coercion from the government. This ill-conceived measure will also set a broader precedent for abolishing court-awarded attorney’s fees in all civil-rights cases, thus undermining the system that Congress carefully wrought to ensure that those who suffer unconstitutional discrimination will be able to obtain legal representation to vindicate their civil rights. Accordingly, Americans United opposes H.R. 2679 and urges your careful deliberation on this matter.”
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.