ACRU

Bullying for Dollars

This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight was published April 15, 2011 on The Washington Times website.

On any given day, holdups are going down somewhere in America. But the perps are equipped with brief-cases, not guns, and they usually score far more than your average mugger.

I’m talking about American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys who shake down taxpayers with lawsuits against cities, counties, schools and library boards. They have collected tens of millions of dollars over the years while stripping communities of some aspect of their heritage, usually Christian symbols, prayers or Ten Commandments monuments.

Sadly, when faced with the threat of huge legal bills, public officials usually give up even when their case is winnable.

I recall one such battle in 1998, when the Virginia ACLU persuaded a federal judge to forbid Loudoun County libraries from equipping computers with filters to protect children from pornography. A number of county residents testified on behalf of the filters at a public hearing and urged an appeal. But ACLU of Virginia President Charles Rust-Tierney testified that libraries must provide “universal access to information.” The ACLU prevailed, with no appeal made, and received more than $37,000 in attorney fees, which, for it, was disappointing. It had sought $460,000. A glaring footnote ignored by most media: On Sept. 7, 2007, Rust-Tierney was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for possession of child pornography on his 11-year-old son’s computer, some of which included graphic images of rapes and torture. Universal access, eh?

Since 1976, the ACLU’s aggressive self-financing and bullying has been enabled by the Civil Rights Attorney Fee Act. This federal law was a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was designed to assist people who could not afford counsel in racially oriented civil rights cases. But it has been hijacked by the ACLU for wholesale attacks on America’s religious heritage, traditional values and even the principle of self-governance.

With jurisdictions at every level facing record debt, it’s getting easier for the ACLU to intimidate public officials.

That’s why it was refreshing when Cranston, R.I., city officials told the ACLU last month to take a hike over its demand to tear down a high school banner that encouraged students to abide by a list of virtues. The problem, as you might surmise, was that the message began with “Heavenly Father,” and ended with an “Amen,” just like prayers that U.S. presidents have issued since George Washington and that still are heard in Congress and other public venues. The banner was a gift from the senior class of 1963, and it had not been controversial until a self-professed atheist student got the ACLU to claim she had suffered “injuries” and was “demeaned and devalued.” The ACLU wants the banner removed and seeks compensatory damages.

Such court-ordered payments can add up quickly.

Back in 2000, the ACLU was among several legal groups awarded $4.5 million from the taxpayers of South Carolina for forcing an end to The Citadel military academy’s long-standing men-only policy. About $1 million went to the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, which was started by ACLU attorney Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1971, more than 20 years before President Clinton appointed her to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ACLU was awarded fees in cases involving the removal of Ten Commandments displays in Georgia ($150,000 and $74,462 in two separate cases), Tennessee ($50,000) and Alabama ($500,000). In San Diego, a federal judge in 2003 awarded the ACLU $950,000 in multiyear litigation for suing to nullify a lease allowing the Boy Scouts to use part of Balboa Park for a camp.

Here are some of the most recent examples of how the ACLU puts the fear of evolution (it couldn’t be God) into keepers of public treasuries.

• In Santa Rosa County, Fla., legal costs from a 2009 suit over school prayer that is still simmering had topped $705,000 as of April 8 and are rising. The ACLU’s award – so far – is $196,500.

• In South Dakota, the state attorney general estimates that it could cost as much as $4 million in legal fees to defend the state’s tough new abortion law against a challenge by the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.

• In February, a court ordered the town of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., to pay the ACLU $11,200 in legal fees for its suit against the town for opening its city council meetings with a prayer. That’s down from the $38,000 sought by the ACLU, but doesn’t include the town’s own legal costs.

• In 2008, the ACLU nabbed $42,700 in legal fees after suing Slidell, La., officials to remove a picture of Jesus from the Slidell City Court. There’s no word on whether the ACLU will demand that it be replaced with a picture of Al Gore or just the planet Earth.

In 2005, then-Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, sponsored the Public Expressions of Religion Act (S. 3696), which was sponsored in similar form in the House (H.R. 2679) by then-Rep. John Hostettler, Indiana Republican. As the late American Civil Rights Union constitutional scholar John Armor summarized:

The legitimate purpose, for which the attorneys’ fees provision was first passed, would remain as is. The ACLU purpose, to eliminate all reference to religion in public places – even historical, memorial, or nondenominational – would no longer be funded by taxpayers’ money, extracted from federal, state and local governments.

A similar measure passed the House in 2006 but failed to get a vote in the Senate. In an era when even President Obama pretends to care about fiscal responsibility, it would seem to be a good time for someone to reintroduce this legislation to rein in the legal bullies.