The City of Pensacola is appealing a federal judge’s ruling that the Bayview Cross must come down, and they’re doing so with the pro bono help of one of the nation’s leading religious liberty groups.
Four Pensacola residents sued the city in 2015, represented by the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson ruled last month that the longtime placement of the cross at the city-owned Bayview Park was unconstitutional and gave city officials thirty days to remove it. Vinson has since stayed that order pending the appeal.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has agreed to represent the city in the appeals process free of charge. But while Becket’s attorneys may be working for free, city taxpayers could still end up with a hefty legal bill. That’s because if the appeal is ultimately unsuccessful, the city would likely be required to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees, which Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Madeline Ziegler says could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We don’t have a final calculation of the fees we will be asking for, but it will likely run into six figures just for work done so far,” Ziegler said this week. “That will increase as we continue to put in work dealing with this appeal.”
Indeed, other communities which received free representation from Becket and other religious liberty advocates like Liberty Counsel have ended up on the hook for large sums after losing their cases. In 2012, the City of Cranston, R.I., which had been represented pro bono by Becket, was ordered to pay the ACLU $150,000 in legal fees after losing a suit over a prayer banner displayed in a local high school. In 2005, two Kentucky counties which had been represented by Liberty Counsel were ordered to pay more than $450,000 in legal fees to the ACLU after losing an appeal over the display of the Ten Commandments outside local courthouses. One of the counties had to take out a loan to pay the legal fees.
The City of Pensacola has already spent nearly $100,000 arguing the lawsuit in federal district court, a phase of the case which was handled by local firm Beggs & Lane. FFRF/AHA attorneys filed a motion last week asking for fees to be awarded, but that motion is stayed pending the appeal.
Of course, if the city and Becket ultimately prevail, they won’t have to worry about any fees — and Becket is confident that’s what will happen.
“Our attorneys specialize in appellate work and have an unparalleled record of success, including at the U.S. Supreme Court,” Becket attorney Luke Goodrich wrote to Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward last month. “In the last five years, we have served as counsel to parties in more than twenty federal appeals, all but one of which resulted in victories for our clients.”
Days later, when the appeal was announced to the public, Goodrich didn’t mince words.
“We expect the city will win this case,” he said.