Supporters say the bill, if passed and signed into law, would keep special-interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union from "abusing the system" when filing challenges to government actions that may endorse religion. Opponents say it would have a chilling effect on the ability of religious minorities to defend their freedoms.Those are some sharply drawn party lines. I'm definitely with the ACLU on this one. "Americans who care about our rich religious heritage in this country" -- that really grates. Taking a strong position in favor of separating religion and state doesn't mean you don't "care about our rich religious heritage in this country." I mean, could Hostettler get any more conservative buzz words into his sentence? Victory, Americans, rich, religious, heritage, country.
The committee's vote was split down party lines, with all 12 Republicans present supporting the bill and Democrats opposing it....
"[T]he ability to recover attorneys' fees in civil-rights and constitutional cases, including establishment-clause cases, is necessary to help protect the religious freedom of all Americans and to keep religion government-free," the [ACLU] statement said, noting the fees in such suits often total "tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars."
"Few citizens can afford to [pay such fees]," it continued. "But more importantly, citizens should not be required to do so where the court finds that the government has violated their rights and engaged in unconstitutional behavior."
Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.), the bill's chief House sponsor, said the act was necessary to prevent such groups from intimidating governments into agreeing to out-of-court settlements.
"It is outrageous that public officials have been threatened with the prospect of financial ruin merely because they wish to defend their constitutional rights in a court of law," he said in a statement. "This is a big victory for Americans who care about our rich religious heritage in this country."
Meanwhile, the ACLU forefronts "keep[ing] religion government-free," which really is one of the Establishment Clause values, even though it's not what we usually feel is motivating the ACLU to bring its lawsuits, so you may feel pretty skeptical.
Nevertheless, keeping government out of religion really is something Americans who care about our rich religious heritage in this country should know is every bit as much a part of our rich religious heritage in this country as keeping religion out of government and protecting free expression about religion. And -- I hasten to add -- so is avoiding fighting about religion... which would be a good idea now... even in Congress.