Groups Vow To Re-claim Civil Liberties

Groups Vow To Re-claim Civil Liberties

Coalition lobbies supervisors to condemn USA Patriot Act.

A coalition of religious and civic organizations, several of which are based in Reston, has started a lobbying campaign to convince the Board of Supervisors to officially condemn the USA Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act, passed a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, gave law enforcement agencies new powers in the fight against terrorism. Supporters say the law has made it easier to catch and prosecute terrorists, but critics say that has come at the expense of civil liberties and unfair racial profiling of the Muslim community.

If the Board of Supervisors approves the proposed resolution, Fairfax County would join three states — Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont — and more than 260 communities across the country that have voted to denounce the Patriot Act.

"The elected officials representing one-sixth of this nation have affirmed their support for civil liberties and passed resolutions against the Patriot Act," said Hank Blakely, a member of the Civil Liberties Task Force of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston.

Blakely, along with other members of the Fairfax County Bill of Rights Coalition, an ad hoc group working to get the resolution passed, specifically objects to provisions of the Patriot Act that allows the government to search homes or confiscate records without a warrant or probable cause apart from suspicion of terrorist-related activities.

"It completely rewrites everything we know about American law," he said.

And by lowering the burden of proof required for searches and arrests, the act infringes on the right to due process and protection from unreasonable searches and seizure, said Mona Hamoui, also a member of the ad hoc coalition and a representative of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"This affects us all as citizens because it goes against our Constitutional rights," she said.

Blain Rethmeier, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman, said the Patriot Act has given the government the tools necessary to fight the war on terrorism.

"We are not abusing the powers of the Patriot Act," he said. "Our efforts are to protect the life and liberty of the American people — not to infringe on their civil liberties."

THE RESOLUTION against the Patriot Act would not have the power of law, but would essentially be a statement by the Board of Supervisors that objects to the measures in the act that have removed due process rights and rolled back civil liberties, said Sydney Wilde, co-minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston and a member of the coalition.

Similar resolutions, passed in states such as California, direct local police forces to ignore the Patriot Act altogether and not enforce its laws. The proposed Fairfax County resolution would not go that far, instead simply making a statement against the act and urging U.S. Congress to amend some of the more objectionable provisions.

Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Gerald Connolly (D), has met with the coalition twice and said the resolution has a fair chance of being passed.

"We do not want to interfere with the federal government’s ability to protect the United States from the terrorist threat," Connolly said. "But we need to tighten up the Patriot Act and make sure civil liberties are protected."

Cathy Hudgins (D), Reston’s representative to the Board of Supervisors, said she plans on supporting the resolution and may sponsor it.

"If you’re going to be able to walk into someone’s house and never let them know you were there and never have to show probable cause, then we have a problem," Hudgins said.

THE PATRIOT ACT has become the focal point for outrage by the Muslim-American community, many members of which feel targeted for the terrorist acts of a few militant extremists, Hamoui said.

Passing a resolution against the Patriot Act in Northern Virginia is especially important, she said, because the region has seen Muslim business and homes raided by federal agents, though actual terrorist-related charges have been seldom.

"We are being specifically targeted," she said. "There is a lot of racial profiling going on. Anyone who looks Arab is considered suspect."

This feeling of being targeted has actually hurt the fight against terrorism, she said, because Arab- and Muslim-Americans are now more reluctant to cooperate with investigations for fear of being arrested or deported themselves.

"There is a cycle of fear in our community," she said.

The wedge that has been driven between law enforcement authorities and the Arab and Muslim community has eroded years of work building relationships and community policing, Hudgins said.

"We’ve made a lot of progress working across diverse community lines and the Patriot Act can shatter that," she said.

MEMBERS OF THE COALITION said they expect the Board of Supervisors will vote on the resolution by next month. If approved, Fairfax County would join the national movement to pressure Congress to revise the Patriot Act.

At the very least, Blakely said, the board’s discussion of the Patriot Act will educate the public about the expanded powers it gives the government.

"There is so little that is said about the Patriot Act in the national news media," he said. "When people find out about this, their eyes tend to get wide with disbelief."

Rethmeier, of the Justice Department, said the resolutions being passed around the country are "cookie cutter resolutions" offered on the American Civil Liberties Union’s web site, and tend to distort the substance and intentions of the act.

"A lot of this is just for political posturing," he said.