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FREEDOM ISN'T FREE IF ATTORNEY NEEDED.

Byline: RAMONA RIPSTON Local View

MORRIS Radin is a veteran of World War II and the child of Orthodox Jews who became American citizens after escaping the brutal pogroms in Russia. Because his family came to the U.S. to seek religious freedom, he was worried about the implied message of a Latin cross standing in a national preserve in the Mojave Desert. In Russia, the state did not allow families like Radin's to worship freely. Why then was the symbol of Christianity erected on public land in Southern California?

``America is big enough for everyone to practice his or her own faith, where no faith is privileged over any other, a country founded on principle, on freedom of conscience and religion, a country where the government isn't of one faith but welcomes all on a free and equal basis,'' Radin said. ``That is the country my family loved, the country I fought for and love as well.''

So Radin called the American Civil Liberties Union, and we took action on his behalf. Our action centered on the cross atop Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert, but it bears many similarities to the cross atop Mount Soledad near San Diego -- a war memorial in the shape of the symbol of a specific faith, erected on public land and maintained by a public agency. There, a Vietnam veteran who is not Christian felt the monument ignored his service.

Constitutional protections ensure U.S. religious pluralism is unrivaled in the world. The only way to clearly maintain the civil rights and liberties of adherents and nonadherents is by zealously guarding the constitutional line drawn between matters of faith and those of government.

Unfortunately, this line is at risk of being trampled by a bill that has failed four times before and is moving through Congress for the fifth time: the proposed Public Expression of Religion Act, or PERA.

Congress long ago determined that attorney's fees in civil-rights and constitutional cases are necessary to help prevailing parties vindicate their civil rights and to enable vigorous enforcement of these protections. But PERA would keep governmental officials from paying attorney's fees in lawsuits opposing the display of religious symbols on public property. If this bill were to became law, Congress would, for the first time, single out one area protected by the Bill of Rights and prevent its full enforcement.

PERA's supporters spread the myth that religious symbols on gravestones at military cemeteries will be threatened unless the bill passes. In fact, religious symbols on grave markers in military cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery, are entirely constitutional. They reflect the religious conviction of the soldier and his or her family, and they are vastly different from government-sponsored religious symbols.

The true purpose of this bill is to hobble nonprofit organizations, including the ACLU, from working to protect all people's civil rights and civil liberties. Without the money provided by attorney's fees, defending the rights of all Americans would be put in serious jeopardy.

The ACLU is proud of our role protecting the religious freedom of all Americans through the courts of law and public opinion. We will always stand up for freedom of expression and healthy debate, and we encourage others to do the same. Too, we will always follow the clear mandate of our Constitution, which protects against attempts by the majority to curtail the liberties and rights of individuals.

If America is to continue its tradition of protecting people like Morris Radin, we must act to prevent ill-conceived legislation such as PERA from becoming enshrined into our law.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 24, 2006
Words:595
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