Missouri taxpayers may be covering $884,000 in legal fees for a Columbia church’s U.S. Supreme Court case after a state agency denied its playground resurfacing.
Attorney General Josh Hawley praised the high court ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church but questioned the fees and expenses, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.
The court ruled last year that the Department of Natural Resources couldn’t use religion as a reason to deny the church’s grant application to resurface a playground using scrap tire pieces. The church had sued the state agency in 2012, arguing discrimination in violation of religious rights under the U.S. Constitution.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Hawley wrote that the court “has made clear that the First Amendment does not permit government to discriminate against churches or religious organizations on the basis of faith.”
But Hawley is now objecting to the church’s motion seeking legal fees for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which argued the case on its behalf. He called it “unreasonable to ask Missouri taxpayers to pay a large attorneys’ fees.”
The alliance didn’t return the newspaper’s request for comment.
Alliance Attorney Erik Stanley said in a brief filed last month that the fees and expenses are reasonable for the four attorneys who spent nearly 1,695 hours working on the case.
“All have exercised billing judgment and reduced their requested hours to avoid duplicative time, excessive time, and other factors,” Stanley wrote.
The alliance’s legal bill includes rates of up to $695 an hour and “luxury travel accommodation and dinner” expenses, according to Hawley’s office. The legal fees and expenses aren’t based on market rates and are unreasonably high compared to those awarded in previous cases, Hawley said.
Hawley is asking U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey to reduce the total hours allowed to 1,155 and to cut hourly rates by 35 percent.
Laughrey hasn’t set a court date yet to rule on the motions.
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