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ACLU Attorneys File Request for Fees In Cranston Prayer Case

Posted: February 01, 2012|Category: Church and State

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Following up a federal court’s decision earlier this month finding unconstitutional the display of a prayer mural in Cranston High School West’s auditorium, Rhode Island ACLU attorneys have today asked the court to award $173,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs for their successful work on the case. Federal law gives prevailing plaintiffs in constitutional cases like this the right to recover their attorneys’ fees from the defendants, in this instance the City of Cranston and school committee.

Before deciding to move forward with the case to maintain the prayer in the auditorium, school committee officials were made aware that they could be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees if they lost a legal challenge. And at least one national organization that the school district had consulted about assisting in defense of the lawsuit declined because, in the words of the school district’s attorney, “they don’t feel that it’s a winnable case.” By a 4-3 vote, the school committee nonetheless decided to defend the display in court.

In filing the fee application, RI ACLU volunteer attorneys Lynette Labinger and Thomas Bender discounted hundreds of hours they had spent working on the case. In terms of its complexity, the ACLU noted that the school district initially raised ten affirmative defenses when it filed its answer to the lawsuit. The amount sought by the ACLU attorneys pales in comparison to the attorneys’ fees that lawyers working with the Becket Fund, the national group that assisted the school district in defending the case, obtained in a church-state lawsuit two years ago. In that case from Colorado, dealing with a church zoning dispute, attorneys working with the Becket Fund were awarded over $1.25 million in attorneys’ fees for their work handling the case in the district court.

In recent years, the Cranston school district has been facing severe budget and program cuts. In November 2010, when the school committee was still considering whether to maintain the prayer, school Superintendent Peter Nero warned: “If we lose this and there are any penalties moving forward that we have to pay, that’s going to mean further cuts to our programs and we’re going to further hurt children.”

“The Cranston School Committee was fully informed from the beginning that a decision to move forward with this case would likely result in the payment of attorney’s fees if they were not successful,” said RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown. “In fact, in an attempt to avoid the costs of litigation and spare the taxpayers, we waited eight months before filing suit in the hope that this matter could be informally resolved. Despite those efforts, the school committee voted to mount a vigorous defense of the prayer in court, leading to today’s filing.”

Since the court issued its decision finding the prayer mural a violation of the First Amendment, the ACLU’s 16-year-old plaintiff, Jessica Ahlquist, has faced a barrage of threats and hate mail. The school committee has not yet decided whether it will appeal the court ruling. If it files an appeal and the decision is affirmed, the school committee will be required to pay the ACLU attorneys’ additional fees for handling the appeal. Any fees awarded in the case will go to the ACLU and its volunteer attorneys, not Jessica, who is entitled to a total of $25 in damages.

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