WASHINGTON – Montgomery County late last month became the latest community to pass a resolution protesting the federal Patriot Act (search), and it could soon be followed by the city of Greenbelt.
They follow 174 other communities across the country -- two others in Maryland -- that have gone on record against the act, which was passed in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but which critics say has gone too far.
"Although we believe in fighting terrorism, we also believe in the Constitution (search) and the Bill of Rights (search)," said Montgomery County Council member George Leventhal. "We can fight terrorism without violating peoples' civil liberties."
The Department of Justice agrees -- and says that the Patriot Act does not violate civil rights as its critics charge.
"It's unfortunate that these cities and townships are misreading the Patriot Act," said Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman.
He said that people who criticize the bill "have missed the fact that the protections that reside in our Constitution reside in the Patriot Act," and that "not a single federal court or Congress, have cited a single instance of abuse of civil liberties."
The act loosens requirements for some government searches, expands access to financial and other records, and allows indefinite detention of "enemy combatants," among other changes.
Takoma Park was the first jurisdiction in Maryland to pass a resolution protesting the Patriot Act, in 2002. It was followed by Baltimore City last spring. Montgomery County approved its resolution of displeasure Tuesday on an 8-1 vote.
"The resolution represents a strong statement made by the county government expressing concern about the civil liberties of Montgomery County residents," said Stephen Dwyer, chairman of the county's Bill of Rights Coalition (search), which brought the resolution to the council.
The Montgomery County resolution calls for congressional review of the USA Patriot Act. It also says the county will continue to respect residents' rights to privacy and free speech, and that local police will refrain from enforcing federal immigration laws and racial and religious profiling, among other assertions.
The Greenbelt City Council was scheduled to consider a similar resolution.
"We're fairly optimistic that the city of Greenbelt will pass the resolution," said Lucy Duff, from the Prince George's County Peace and Justice Coalition. "It would be a strong statement asking city police and agencies not to infringe on the civil rights of its residents."
She said the coalition plans to propose the resolution to the Prince George's County Council as well.
Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews, the lone council vote against the resolution, said the council did not take the necessary time to evaluate the Patriot Act before passing the resolution.
But Andrews also said that the amount of time it would have taken to study and fully understand the Act would have diverted attention from important issues the council must deal with.
"I don't think the council passing the resolution makes much difference," he said, since "the outcome was no surprise."
"The resolution simply reaffirms what we already do, it doesn't change policies," Andrews said. "I don't think the Bush Administration will be influenced by what we have done."
But the vote carries a strong symbolic message for others.
"It sends a very powerful message about the county's commitment to protect civil liberties," Dwyer said. "The county citizens should take comfort and rejoice at the council's resolution."