The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

House Moves to Hinder Church-State Lawsuits

by Michelle Chen

Sept. 12, 2006 – The House of Representatives is advancing a bill that critics say would hinder people from defending the separation of church and state in the nation’s courtrooms.

As previously reported by The NewStandard, the Public Expression of Religion Act, introduced by Representative John Hotstettler (R–Indiana), would prevent plaintiffs in church-state separation cases from recovering attorney’s fees as part of their lawsuit awards. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill last week.

Supporters of the legislation, such as the veterans’ organization American Legion, want to limit lawsuits against religious symbols in public settings, from prayer at school football games to crosses on public grounds.

Critics of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group Secular Coalition for America, say the bill would further empower government institutions to inject religion into the public sphere.

Generally, federal law allows winning plaintiffs in civil-rights and constitutional cases against the government to be compensated for legal fees. Attorneys’ fees could run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and are frequently financed by court-ordered awards from the defendant’s side.

Groups like the ACLU, which represents plaintiffs in many church-state cases, say the attorney-fee awards in successful cases are necessary so that lawyers can offer their services to individuals without charge.

Jeremy Leaming, with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, acknowledged that the bill could affect the group financially, since it has received court-ordered compensation in past cases it has litigated. Nonetheless, he pointed out that the bill does not propose comparable restrictions on attorney’s fees for individuals or groups that sue to defend religious exercise in government or public settings.

The main problem, he argued to TNS, is that the bill’s supporters "don’t particularly like the way a lot of federal courts have ruled on church-state issues… and their intention is to see church-state lawsuits stop."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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