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Hill bill protects flying public

- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

House Republicans are pushing legislation to protect airline passengers from lawsuits for reporting suspicious behavior that might be linked to a terrorist attack.

Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican, introduced the Protecting Americans Fighting Terrorism Act of 2007 on Thursday, a week after a lawsuit was filed by a group of Muslim imams who were taken off a US Airways flight in November.

It is "unconscionable" that those who report suspicious activity could be "terrorized in our own court system in our own country," Mr. Pearce said on the House floor yesterday afternoon.

The lawsuit asserts that the imams were discriminated against by US Airways, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission and "John Doe" passengers to be named later.

A public interest law firm that fights against religious discrimination publicly condemned the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) yesterday for supporting a case it calls "legal terrorism" and said it will file a brief with the court on behalf of the passengers.

"This is a first for us," Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, wrote in a letter to Nihad Awad, president of CAIR. "We have never opposed someone else's claim for religious discrimination.

"But this tactic of threatening suit against ordinary citizens is so far beyond the tradition of civil rights litigation in the United States that we must oppose it to defend the good name of religious liberty itself," Mr. Hasson said.

Becket Fund lawyers have successfully argued cases for Muslims before, winning the right of Newark police officers to wear beards and securing a place for Muslim public school students in Texas to pray.

"In short, we know religious liberty," said Mr. Hasson, who urged the CAIR leader to "use whatever influence" to "renounce any such intention to sue individual citizens."

"This case is against US Airways and not against the passengers," said Omar Mohammedi, a member of CAIR and the imams' attorney. However, he added, "The imams have the right to face their accusers if they purposely made false reports with the intent to discriminate against the imams."

A spokesman from CAIR did not respond to an offer to comment on the Becket Fund letter.

The imams were removed from the flight after praying loudly in the gate area, speaking angrily about the war in Iraq and President Bush, not taking their assigned seats and requesting seat-belt extenders that were not necessary and that could be used as weapons, according to incident reports and officials interviewed by The Washington Times.

Three of the imams said they "noticed an older couple was sitting behind them and purposely turning around to watch the other plaintiffs as they prayed together" and that the man "picked up his cellular phone and made a phone call while watching the plaintiffs pray," according to the imams' lawsuit.

Mr. Pearce called the lawsuit "an injustice against Americans who were simply trying to protect themselves."

"These brave citizens should be recognized as heroes for their efforts to report suspicious activity, particularly activity that has been associated with previous terror attacks," he said.

Mr. Pearce has 10 Republican co-sponsors for his bill, including: Rob Bishop of Utah, Dan Burton of Indiana, Geoff Davis of Kentucky, Trent Franks of Arizona, John Kline of Minnesota, Thaddeus G. McCotter of Michigan, Howard McKeon of California, Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, Lynn A. Westmoreland of Georgia and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia.

"This lawsuit makes me wonder exactly what CAIR and the imams are looking to do with their suit," Mr. Shuster said. "The inclusion of bystanders as defendants in this lawsuit is a clear indication that the imams don't want to right a wrong; they want to make a statement."

Attorneys with two Minnesota law firms -- Faegre & Benson LLP and Barna, Guzy and Steffen Ltd. -- are offering to defend the passengers pro bono, and the American Islamic Forum for Democracy in Phoenix is offering to help raise funds to offset legal fees.