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National Council of Churches urges end of law
That restricts access to legal aid for low-income families
 

New York, November 29, 2005 – The National Council of Churches USA and 29 other faith-based groups are urging Congress to end a law they say hurts poor families who need legal advice. 

“Our faith calls us to advocate for the ‘least of these’ within our society, and to seek the common good,” said the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner, the NCC’s Deputy General Secretary for Research and Planning.  “The protection of the access to legal counsel for rich and poor alike stands at the heart of the commonweal and is consistent with our moral precepts.”  

The NCC and other faith groups want Congress to end a law that prohibits federally supported legal aid organizations from spending state, local or private funds to provide legal assistance to low-income families. 

Every day, the groups say, thousands of low-income individuals and families, including some of the most vulnerable members of our society, cannot obtain the critically important legal help they need to cope with a range of civil legal problems that have destabilized their lives.

A recent study reveals that at least four in five low-income Americans are unable to obtain legal help when they need it.   

The so-called “private money restriction” interferes with the ability of legal services lawyers to help low-income individuals and families in a wide array of cases, including unlawful evictions, prisoner reentry, religious asylum, domestic violence, predatory lending, disaster relief, and many others. 

In the letter to Congressmen Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Alan Mollohan (D-WV), respectively the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that allocates funds to federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) that funds legal aid groups, the groups call for an end to the private money restriction. 

Federal law prohibits the use of LSC grant money for certain types of legal representation.  Legal aid organizations may spend their own funds on these restricted categories of advocacy only if they first establish a physically separate office with separate staff, office space, and equipment.   

The NCC and other faith-based groups say this compulsory physical separation imposes unnecessary expenses on cash-strapped legal aid programs and creates costly obstacles to private philanthropy.  As a result, legal aid organizations are unable to help low-income people in a number of important types of cases even with non-federal funds.   

In addition to being troubled by the harm this law inflicts on low-income people, faith-based service providers are concerned that if the physical separation model were to be imported into faith-based settings (as may occur if the government continues to defend this model in litigation and policy debates), the result – equivalent physical separation of secular and faith-based activities – would undermine the public-private partnership model that delivers important social services to low-income communities. 

A parallel effort to fix the private money restriction is ongoing in the courts.  Represented by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, three New York legal aid programs have challenged the constitutionality of the physical separation requirement.   

A federal District Court judge ruled last year that the application of the restriction to the three programs violated their First Amendment rights to advocate for their clients.  But the government appealed the District Court ruling in the case – Velazquez v. LSC – so the future of legal services for the poor remains in jeopardy.  

Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. The NCC's member faith groups – representing a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, historic African American and Living Peace churches – include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation. 

Here is a copy of the letter to Congress. For more information about the private money restriction or to join the growing campaign to restore justice to legal aid funding, go to http://www.brennancenter.org/programs/pov/dobbins%20national%20campaign/index.html

Contact Rebekah Diller: 212-992-8635 

NCC News, Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2252, pjenks@ncccusa.org; Leslie Tune, 202-544-2350, ltune@ncccusa.org


 

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