Double Jeopardy for the First Amendment --

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Double Jeopardy for the First Amendment --

I am going to start posting news articles that directly affect Church/State issues here and probably in the Anti-neocons forum. Here I will post news articles...and the Anti-neocon forum, I will use to express opinions on issues involving church/state neocon xtian right wing bullshit..so w/o further ado...

Double Jeopardy for the First Amendment -- Congress Mulls Scheme to Save Mt. Soledad Cross, Discourage State-Church Litigation

AANews Staff Report
From American Atheists AANews
Aug. 2, 2006

What began earlier this month in the U.S. House of Representatives as a political stunt emphasizing culture war and religious issues has spread to the other end of Capitol Hill, with serious consequences for the First Amendment.

Lawmakers are expected to act within the following week on measures that would authorize the federal government to purchase the controversial Mt. Soledad Christian cross in San Diego, Calif. and discourage litigation over other First Amendment issues by ending compensatory attorney fees even if the government is found at fault.

The two bills, however, are just part of a larger legislative initiative hatched by Republicans in early July and grandly christened the "American Values Agenda." So far, the effort has included bills to outlaw same-sex marriage; protect "unborn children" and ban human cloning. Most of the proposals are hot-button issues for politically energized Christian conservatives who have been grumbling about the GOP's seeming lack of concern over promoting this agenda.

Most of the legislative items were languishing in committees until House Speaker Dennis Hastert unveiled the new program and said that the upcoming series of votes would determine where lawmakers stood on the issues. Critics were quick to weigh in, suggesting that the "American Values Agenda" (AVA) was an electioneering scheme meant to capitalize on "wedge issues" and distract public attention from more substantive concerns.

Two bills have now joined the AVA, and will likely see action in the House and/or Senate in coming days.

The House of Representatives, after perfunctory debate, voted 349-74 last week to pass HR 5683 and declare the land beneath the 43-foot high Mt. Soledad Christian cross the property of the federal government.

California Atheist Philip Paulson has been challenging the constitutionality of the cross for nearly 18 years, arguing that it violates the "no preference" clause of the California state constitution. Defenders of the cross, however, insist that it has nothing to do with sectarian religion, but instead is a "war memorial." San Diego voters agreed last year when they overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative to donate the land to the federal government in hopes of keeping the cross standing atop the 800-foot area known as Mt. Soledad.

Courts have consistently ruled, however, that the structure is unconstitutional. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court ordered that the cross be removed by Aug. 1 and levied a $5,000 penalty for every day the city delayed.

Earlier this month, though, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy granted a stay on that order. Supporters of the cross, including the San Diego City Council and the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association, which currently maintains the area, vowed to continue the court battle, and urged Congress to "federalize" the cross.

The Senate version of the Mt. Soledad legislation, S. 3683, was introduced two weeks ago by Sen. Jeff Sessions, and was promptly put on a legislative fast track. Some worry, though, that the measure complicates a murky legal issue, and that ultimately the case will have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sessions told fellow senators that he expects the bill to be approved and that there "will not be overwhelming opposition ...as there was not in the House of Representatives."

Adding to the momentum for S. 3683 is word that U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have announced their support for the legislation. Both are noted for liberal voting records.

Senators hope to see the bill approved through the process of unanimous consent. President Bush says he will sign the bill if it clears Capitol Hill.

Whatever the outcome of the Mt. Soledad case, filing suit against many other government practices which violate the separation of church and state could become prohibitively expensive if lawmakers enact the so-called "Public Expression of Religion Act." The measure would disallow compensatory court awards to cover litigation costs in certain cases involving the First Amendment separation of church and state, even if plaintiffs prevail.

"Pure and simple, this is a scheme to discourage and penalize citizens from challenging unconstitutional government promotion of religion," said Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists. "It means that the cost of defending constitutional rights will become prohibitively expensive for private citizens and advocacy groups. And it comes close to giving the government a 'free pass' whenever it violates separation."

The House version (HR 2679) was introduced by Rep. John Hostettler. In 2003, Hostettler was behind an unsuccessful measure that would have withheld funds from the U.S. Marshals Service and any other agency charged with enforcing the decisions of U.S. District Courts if their decisions removed the words "Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance or ordered a Ten Commandments monument to be taken out of the Alabama capitol building.

The measure is in the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, S. 3696, proposes to "amend all relevant federal laws to eliminate the authority of judges to award taxpayer-paid attorney fees ... in lawsuits under the Establishment of Religion Clause of the First Amendment against veterans memorials, the Boy Scouts, or the public display of the Ten Commandments or other symbols of America's history with a religious aspect." The American Legion, Focus on the Family, and Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice are some of the organizations lobbying hard for passage of the legislation.

This article is from issue #1215 of American Atheists AANews, first published July 30, 2006. AANews is a free email news publication of American Atheists, edited by Conrad F. Goeringer.

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