Two Milwaukee County, Wisconsin deputy sheriffs, along with the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs Association, filed a lawsuit against the County alleging that the County had violated their rights under the First Amendment’s “Establishment of Religion” clause. The deputies contended that the County had invited an evangelical Christian organization, the Fellowship of Christian Centurions, to make presentations at several meetings that deputies had to attend, including one at which the County discussed promotion criteria. At the meetings, the County expressed support for the Centurions and permitted it to proselytize its message.
A court found that a deputy could have reasonably inferred that he would receive more favorable treatment by manifesting receptiveness to the Centurions’ message. Thus, the Court concluded that the County had violated the Establishment Clause, which “mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non-religion.”
Because the deputies did not seek anything other than nominal damages, the Court awarded them damages of $1.00 each. The deputies then sought payment of their attorney’s fees. The County opposed the request because of the low award of damages.
The Court found that the deputies should be entitled to recover their attorney’s fees: “While though they only obtained nominal damages, damages were never a serious part of this lawsuit. In this respect, the action likely typifies Establishment Clause cases inasmuch as government promotion of religion does not usually cause compensable injury even while it erodes our religious freedoms. The deputies asked for unspecified damages in their complaint but after prevailing on summary judgment, forewent a damages trial. The deputies prevailed on a significant issue. By vindicating a fundamental right in clarifying that public employees could avail themselves of it, the deputies’ actions served an important public service. Thus, the deputies are entitled to a fee award.”
In the end, the Court found that an award of attorney’s fees and costs of $38,687 was appropriate.
Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs Association v. Clarke, 2008 WL 337335 (E.D.Wis. 2008).
This article appears in the April 2008 issue