They threaten to sue municipalities and school districts which display any sign of religious observance. If the ACLU wins, the school district or town must pay outrageous legal fees. Thus, school boards and town councils are cowed into submission if they even suspect the ACLU might sue them. They fail to respect the First Amendment rights of citizens to a free religious expression.
This bill would stop the ACLU from doing this.
Religious-Liberties Bill Reintroduced in Senate
by Pete Winn, associate editor
Legislation would deny attorneys' fees to groups including the ACLU.
The Public Expressions of Religion Act made a comeback on Capitol Hill on Monday.
The bill would prevent activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from challenging religious displays on public property and then demanding the government pay attorneys' fees.
It failed in the 109th Congress.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said his legislation is needed because numerous school districts and towns have been "coerced into settling claims out of a fear of huge monetary losses."
"It's not fair for the ACLU to make taxpayers pay their legal bills," the senator added.
Amanda Banks, federal policy analyst for Focus on the Family Action, said the ACLU scours the country to find schools and other public places where the Ten Commandments, crosses or Bibles are displayed. The group sues for removal, misusing a law originally intended for civil-rights cases.
"They can say, 'If you don't remove this, we're going to sue you," Banks said. "The position they put a school district or town in is -- 'Either cave in or be prepared to lose a very large amount of money.' "
Not surprisingly, the ACLU opposes the measure.
"If PERA were to pass, Congress would isolate and discourage enforcement of a specific piece of our Bill of Rights," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington, D.C., office.
But Brownback said the Bill of Rights takes a body blow whenever the ACLU wins legal fees in freedom of religious expression cases.
One such case occurred in 2003, he said, when liberal groups won a challenge in Alabama to remove a Ten Commandments display from the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building. Taxpayers were forced to pay nearly $550,000 in attorneys' fees to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU of Alabama and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Then, in Pennsylvania, a judge awarded $2 million to the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Americans United after the groups successfully sued the Dover, Pa., school board for requiring science teachers to teach intelligent design alongside evolution. The award was later reduced to $1 million.
The real question: How realistic are PERA's chances with ACLU-friendly Democrats in charge?
"It's going to be a tough bill to sell in this Congress," Banks said.
Last September, the House passed its own version -- championed by then-Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind. That bill died in the Senate, and Hostettler was not re-elected.
"Last year, just one Democratic Senate member was a co-sponsor of the bill, and that was Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska," Banks noted. "He has not signed onto it yet this year, but there's no reason to believe that he wouldn't do so at a later date. One out of 51 Democratic senators is probably not enough."
Brownback, meanwhile, said his legislation would not stop plaintiffs with legitimate claims from having their day in court.