House sponsor hopeful about bill that would bar ACLU’s rewards in religion lawsuits

WASHINGTON (BP)--Indiana’s John Hostettler is trying for the fifth consecutive Congress to prevent the American Civil Liberties Union from receiving government funds when it succeeds at legal challenges to public expressions of religion.

This year, the Republican representative has more hope than before thanks to the American Legion. The country’s largest veterans organization, with about three million members, has aggressively thrown its influence behind Hostettler’s bill, and the persistent congressman is encouraged at his proposal’s prospects.

Hostettler’s measure, the Public Expression of Religion Act (PERA), H.R. 2679, is designed to close what he considers a loophole in federal law that has allowed organizations such as the ACLU to collect attorneys’ fees when they win lawsuits challenging religious symbols on public land or religious groups’ use of government property.

The American Legion released a 40-page document Feb. 28 urging its members to work for passage of Hostettler’s bill. The publication, "In the Footsteps of the Founders," provides a blueprint for building local support for the legislation in an effort to urge members of Congress to approve it. The document has been sent to all of the nearly 15,000 American Legion posts, and the organization’s national commander, Tom Bock, has urged members in a written release to “educate and activate” their communities.

The American Legion “has really, really gotten behind PERA,” Matthew Faraci, the communications director for Hostettler, told Baptist Press. “They have been going around to other members of Congress and trying to make them aware how important this legislation is. We are really confident that there’s going to be action on this bill.”

PERA would change a federal law that allows attorneys’ fees to be paid by the government when a court finds a person’s civil rights have been violated. The bill would bar the awarding of attorneys’ fees when the deprivation of rights involves the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

The ACLU and other organizations have gained attorneys’ fees in numerous cases in which they have won legal challenges to religious expression and symbols. These include:

-- The ACLU was awarded nearly $800,000 in attorneys’ fees from the city of San Diego, Calif., in its successful effort to prevent the Boy Scouts of America, which acknowledges God in its oath, from continuing to use Balboa Park, according to the pro-family organization Eagle Forum.

-- The ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Southern Poverty Law Center gained about $540,000 from the state of Alabama in a successful challenge of the Ten Commandments monument displayed in the State Judicial Building by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, according to Eagle Forum.

-- The ACLU received about $63,000 in a successful attempt to remove a cross from the Mojave Desert World War I Memorial in California, according to the American Legion.

That case prompted a unanimously approved resolution by the American Legion in 2004 urging Congress to pass legislation to bar attorneys’ fees in successful suits calling for the removal or destruction of such symbols. It also pointed to a special concern of the American Legion -- the consequences for crosses, Stars of David and other religious symbols on veterans’ graves.

Bock called the removal of the Mojave cross a “very dangerous precedent. There are 22 national cemeteries with veterans at rest beneath religious symbols. There is nothing in the law to prevent groups like the ACLU from filing establishment-clause lawsuits against those sacred grounds and then receiving taxpayer-paid attorney fees.

PERA “will restore legal balance in this country, and it will protect us from being the victims of this assault on our religious liberties,” Hostettler said in a Feb. 28 speech at the American Legion’s national conference in Washington, according to his written text.

Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State described Hostettler’s bill as “deeply misguided and mean spirited.”

“It is an attempt to deny Americans access to the federal courts to ensure their religious liberty rights,” the AU executive director said in a written statement to BP. “Few Americans are wealthy enough on their own to subsidize federal court cases, which can last years. The current law allows plaintiffs and their lawyers to recover reasonable costs and attorneys' fees if the case is successful. Hostettler's proposal would pull the financial rug out from under Americans, especially religious minorities, who believe their rights have been violated.”

The ACLU will be looking at Hostettler’s bill but is not yet prepared to comment on it, a spokesman for the organization’s Washington office told BP.

Hostettler’s bill has 40 cosponsors. There is no companion bill in the Senate.