June 23, 2006 – A bill that supporters say is targeted at the American Civil Liberties Union may undo a law that forces losing defendants to pay plaintiffsâ€™ legal fees in cases involving some rights issues.
The Public Expression of Religion Act, introduced last year in the House by Representative John Hostettler (R-Indiana), would amend a law passed in the 1970s aimed at making it easier for Americans to sue the government over civil-rights violations. The law is meant to encourage attorneys to take on cases, providing them guaranteed payment if they win.
Hostettlerâ€™s bill would do away with the provision granting attorneyâ€™s fees and reimbursement in cases involving violations of the prohibition against government establishment of religion.
Supporters of Hostettlerâ€™s bill are angered that current law has allowed the American Civil Liberties Union to collect money after winning cases aimed at enforcing the constitutional separation of religion and government. The Public Expression of Religion Act is awaiting a vote in the House Judiciary Committee and has 46 co-sponsors. It also has the backing of the American Legion, a huge conservative veterans organization, which has pledged that its membership will force passage of the bill.
In a press statement yesterday, the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State blasted the proposed bill, saying it "would have a chilling effect on every citizenâ€™s right to access our courts and would be particularly harmful to religious minorities."