September 30, 2006

The Public Expression of Religion Act (H.R. 2679)

In a crazy week filled with important news, the atheist blogosphere has understandable been focused on the passage of H.R. 2679, the Public Expression of Religion Act. If passed by the Senate, which seems unlikely, the act denies reimbursement of legal feels and other expenses to plaintiffs who win lawsuits involving the Establishment Clause. In other words, the act makes filing lawsuits to enforce church-state separation prohibitively expensive to the plaintiff.

Supporters of the bill, including the Southern Baptist Convention, claim that it is needed in order to reduce the number of lawsuits brought in response to religious monuments on government property. In their typical fear-mongering style, they envision atheist activists suing to remove all crosses from cemeteries and other far-fetched scenarios. The want their Ten Commandments displays, and they realize that this legislation would protect their efforts. According to the Washington Post, House Republicans focused primarily on preventing removal of Ten Commandments and Nativity scenes from public property. However, the Post article also makes it sound like intelligent design was in the mind of supporters.

Calling the act "A repugnant affront to the civil rights of all Americans," Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State notes that the legislation will make enforcement of the First Amendment's separation clause much more difficult. Lynn also describes the act as little more than an attempt to appease the Religious Right. "In reality this bill is a broad attempt to stop all kinds of challenges to government-sponsored religious activities. If enacted, it would bar recovery of legal fees and related expenses in an array of conflicts ranging from forcing children to recite prayers in schools to taxpayer funding of religious education."

According to the ACLU's Washington director, Caroline Fredrickson, supporters of the bill are leaving out one critical detail. The legal fees that it denies are only awarded when in cases where the suits are successful. In other words, the bill appears to punish those who bring successful lawsuits.

Religious Right Watch adds that the act opens the door to government-sponsored religion by making it much more difficult for watchdog groups to perform their necessary functions. "Many of these organizations and public interest law firms operate on shoe-string budgets. If they cannot recoup the costs required by legal battles, they will be unable to fight unconstitutional displays of religion."

There is another issue with this bill and similar efforts at "tort reform" which is rarely discussed on the atheist-oriented blogs I read. Trial lawyers are one of the largest contributors to the Democratic party. Anything Republicans can do to limit the size of punitive damages or make it more difficult for attorneys to recover their fees from successful suits hurts the Democratic party financially. With legislation like this, Republicans get to pander to their Christian extremist base and hurt Democratic opposition simultaneously. Now you know what is really driving all this fuss about "activist judges" (for more information on the Republican fascination with "tort reform," see Rockridge).

What can we do? First, we should be prepared to respond to calls from Americans United, DefCon, and other organizations to contact our senators and ask them to vote no when this bill comes before them. Be ready because it appears that this is going to go before the Senate quickly. Second, we should do what we can to get the word out about this bill and its implications. Do not alienate Christians on this matter, for many progressive Christians value the Establishment Clause too. Our approach to this issue does not need to be an assault on religion and will probably be more effective if we focus on the bill and its implications for all Americans who agree that church and state should remain separate. Third, we should learn how our Congressional representatives voted on H.R. 2679. Perhaps we will want to remember they voted when they are up for reelection.

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