WASHINGTON – House Republicans, carrying out their election-year values agenda, on Tuesday pushed through legislation cutting off financial awards for lawsuits successfully filed against expressions of religion such as Christmas displays on government grounds.
The bill, passed 244-173, denies the awarding of attorney's fees or monetary damages to a party that wins a court case based on the establishment clause in the Constitution that is used to argue a separation of church and state.
There is no companion Senate bill and little chance the Senate would consider it in the waning days of this session, but the House vote was a reminder to the GOP's conservative base that their issues are not being ignored.
"We cannot continue to allow frivolous and, frankly, unwarranted lawsuits to stifle the beliefs and self-determination of our great communities," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.
Democratic opponents saw the bill as a serious infringement of constitutional rights.
"This bill would make it more difficult for ordinary Americans to defend their religious freedom against intrusion by government," said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas. "There's nothing benign about this bill."
"Singling out one class of cases for the denial of attorney's fees when every other one gets them does seem to me an odd way to run a constitution," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
Backers of the legislation cited cases contesting the use of religious symbols, such as crosses in veterans' cemeteries, the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings or using public land to host the Boy Scouts, who require participants to declare belief in God.
They said local and state governments, unable to match the financial resources of civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and unwilling to pay costly attorney's fees in losing cases, often accede to demands to remove religious symbols.
"This is an issue of allowing the cases to go to court and not to have the threat or intimidation by the ACLU and their minions to hang over all of these heads," said Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., sponsor of the bill.
"With this bill we will close a loophole that has allowed liberal groups like the ACLU to prey on taxpayers for far too long," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla.
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington legislative office, said passage of the bill "would isolate and discourage enforcement of a specific piece of our Bill of Rights." The legislation, she said, "would, in fact, weaken the very freedom they claim to be protecting."