Features

Pay your own way

National | New legislation would protect schools from paying plaintiff's lawyers in church-state cases

Issue: "Top 40 Books," July 3, 1999

in Washington - The gunshots and bomb blasts of Littleton, Colo., continued to reverberate through the halls of Congress late last month as lawmakers worked into the night to craft their solution to battle youth violence. With more than 170 amendments offered to the so-called "juvenile justice" bill, the would-be physicians in the House of Representatives had plenty of potential Band-Aids to stick on one of the nation's ugliest, most serious wounds. Some Band-Aid solutions struck at freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights-the first ten amendments to the constitution-but ultimately were rejected. But if the first ten amendments fared well in the debate, the Ten Commandments fared even better. In a surprisingly bipartisan vote of 248-180, the House on June 17 passed the Ten Commandments Defense Act, which experts had considered DOA until the rampage at Columbine. Crafted largely by Gary Bauer before his departure from the Family Research Council, the amendment allows states and local communities to decide whether to post the commandments on schoolhouse walls. Liberals insist that such an action violates the separation of church and state, and the Supreme Court seemed to support that view in a 1980 ruling against posting the Ten Commandments in Kentucky. Conservatives, however, insist that such decisions are beyond the power of the federal courts and must be made at the state and local level. "The [Ten Commandments Defense Act] does not force our schools or anyone else to display the Ten Commandments, but instead allows each state to make the decision based on the will of its citizens," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.). Mr. Aderholt introduced the measure two years ago, only to watch it bog down in committee without ever reaching the floor. Then came the back-to-back school shootings in Colorado and Georgia, giving fresh impetus to the search for solutions. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) blasted moral relativism and godless education, arguing that if the Ten Commandments had been posted in Columbine High School, the shootings never would have occurred. Even many of Mr. Barr's conservative colleagues viewed that as simplistic, but they argued last week that reminding young students of eternal moral values is at least a step in the right direction. Liberal groups from the ACLU to People for the American Way immediately called the Aderholt amendment "blatantly unconstitutional" and promised to challenge the law in court. But another amendment to the juvenile justice bill, passed without fanfare, may make it much harder for them to do just that. The Freedom of Student Religious Expression bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), didn't stir up the same outrage among secularists as the Ten Commandments bill. The irony is that while liberals seethed over the largely symbolic Aderholt amendment, many failed to recognize the substantive challenge they faced in the DeMint amendment, which would change the way lawyers are paid when parents sue a school over alleged establishment of religion. "Under current law," Mr. DeMint explained, "if the school loses a case in which it defends student speech, it must pay the opposition's legal fees. If the school wins in defending student speech, however, it cannot recoup legal fees from the losing party. With tight budgets, books to purchase, and quality teachers to retain, many schools choose to silence student speech rather than face the risk of costly litigation by special interests. And it is the students and their civil liberties that suffer." The DeMint amendment shifts some of that risk to anti-religious parents who may be contemplating a lawsuit: Win or lose, they'll have to pay their own legal fees. Neither the Aderholt nor the DeMint amendment is safe just yet. The Senate version of the juvenile justice bill included no such provisions, so they could be dropped when negotiators from both chambers meet to hammer out a single bill to send to the president-who may veto the whole thing, anyway. Still, the surprise action in the House last week offers further evidence of a backlash against the radical secularists who want to expunge God from every corner of public life. If nothing else, their crusade threatens to become a lot more expensive.

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