Brownback Calls for Judicial Activist Groups to Pay Their Own Legal Fees
Bill requires all parties in church and state separation cases to pay their own legal costs
U.S. Senator Sam Brownback introduced a bill that would prevent judicial activist groups from using a 1970s-era civil rights law to force taxpayers to recover costs incurred from litigating cases related to public displays of religion and faith.
"Groups with a partisan political agenda should not have their legal costs reimbursed by state and local governments," said Brownback. "If a group like the ACLU wants to sue a city for displaying a religious image, it should pay the bill itself, not take advantage of a provision that was designed to reimburse poor individuals pursuing civil rights cases."
The Public Expressions of Religion Act would require parties to pay their own attorney fees when litigating cases regarding the First Amendment's establishment clause, which protects the separation of church and state. This would remedy a nuance in the Civil Rights Attorney Fees Awards Act of 1976 that allows winning parties in establishment clause cases to recover attorney's fees. Today groups like the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State use this law to recover attorney's fees when suing states and localities for alleged violations of the separation of church and state.
Brownback continued, "It's part of our democracy that a judicial activist group has the right to sue a local or state government for a perceived violation of the First Amendment. But it's wrong for these well-heeled activist groups to abuse civil rights laws so that their legal costs are paid for by taxpayers."
When faced with a lawsuit over an alleged violation of the separation of church and state, most local and state governments acquiesce because losing the case would mean paying the attorney's fees of the group bringing suit. For example, when the ACLU sued Los Angeles County to remove a small cross visible on a Spanish mission in the county's official seal, the county chose to remove the cross rather than face the risk of losing the case and paying the ACLU's legal bills. When several groups won a case in Alabama to remove a Ten Commandments display from a courthouse, taxpayers were forced to pay the ACLU and others nearly $550,000.
Brownback is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights.