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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) characterizes itself as America's "guardian of liberty," working to "defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States." "We work," says the ACLU, "also to extend rights to segments of our population that have traditionally been denied their rights, including Native Americans and other people of color; lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people; women; mental-health patients; prisoners; people with disabilities; and the poor."
The ACLU was established in 1920 by Roger Baldwin (1884-1981), who served as its executive director until 1950. Baldwin was a socialist who counseled subterfuge as the preferable means of promoting his political agendas in the United States. In a private 1917 letter (to the journalist/activist Louis Lochner, who was affiliated with a radical organization), Baldwin wrote: “Do steer away from making it look like a Socialist enterprise. We want to look like patriots in everything we do. We want to get a lot of flags, talk a good deal about the Constitution and what our forefathers wanted to make of this country, and to show that we are really the folks that really stand for the spirit of our institutions.” In the ACLU's early years, Baldwin hailed the Russia of Lenin and Stalin as “a great laboratory of social experimentation of incalculable value to the development of the world.” In 1928 Baldwin told his allies: “I am for socialism, disarmament, and ultimately for abolishing the state itself as an instrument of violence and compulsion. I seek social ownership of all property, the abolition of the propertied class, and sole control by those who produce wealth. Communism is the goal.”
Reflective of the enduring nature of the ACLU's radicalism is the fact that decades after its founding, the organization named the unrepentant New Left terrorist Bernardine Dohrn to its advisory board. Dohrn, a Marxist, was a 1960s-era leader of Weatherman—described by her husband Bill Ayers as “an American Red Army.”
Today the ACLU handles more than 6,000 court cases each year and has offices in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. In addition to the nearly 200 staff attorneys it employs, the organization also makes use of approximately 2,000 volunteer attorneys who work pro bono. Further, the ACLU claims to have more than 500,000 “members and supporters.”
AREAS OF FOCUS
The ACLU's work today focuses on a multitude of issues, most notably these 15 major initiatives:
1) Keep America Safe & Free: "[Y]ears ago, we could not have imagined our country would engage in systematic policies of torture and targeted killing, extraordinary rendition and warrantless wiretaps, military commissions and indefinite detention, political surveillance and religious discrimination.... Some of these policies have been stopped. Torture and extraordinary rendition are no longer officially condoned. But most other policies—indefinite detention, targeted killing, trial by military commissions, warrantless surveillance, and racial profiling—remain a core element of our national security strategy today."
2) Defending Targets of Discrimination: "Longstanding values of equality and fairness are being challenged in our legislatures and courts. The legal system that was long used as a sword and a shield against bigotry is now being inverted to promote and enshrine intolerance. We’ve seen this trend across a number of civil liberties issues including: attacks on marriage fairness for LGBT couples; efforts to deny women insurance for abortion care;... a nationwide effort by state legislatures to restrict access to the ballot box; anti-immigrant laws that codify racial profiling by targeting Latinos and other people of color; and discriminatory disciplinary practices that push kids of color out of school and into the criminal justice system."
3) Safe Communities, Fair Sentences: "Our criminal justice system should keep communities safe and treat people fairly, regardless of the color of their skin or the size of their bank account.... It is un-American to stand idly by and tolerate our government locking up so many people, treating racial and ethnic minorities unfairly and squandering public resources."
4) Protecting Civil Liberties in the Digital Age: "A constant stream of revolutionary new technologies erode existing protections, and greatly expanded powers for our security agencies allow the government to peer into our lives without due process or meaningful oversight. Our rights and liberties have undergone constant erosion since 9/11.... The fact is, privacy laws have failed to keep up with emerging technologies."
5) Spy Files: "Today the government is spying on Americans in ways the founders of our country never could have imagined ... gathering incredible amounts of personal information about ordinary Americans that can be used to construct vast dossiers that can be widely shared with a simple mouse-click ... The fear of terrorism has led to a new era of overzealous police intelligence activity directed ... against political activists, racial and religious minorities, and immigrants. This surveillance activity is not directed solely at suspected terrorists and criminals. It's directed at all of us."
6) Consumer Privacy: "Beyond the financial sector, telecommunications companies can (and often do) keep detailed records of their customers’ usage habits, records which they not only routinely hand over to the government on nothing more but a request letter, but also use for marketing purposes.... The ACLU advocates for a robust updating of consumer privacy laws."
7) Racial Profiling: "Racial profiling is a practice that presents a great danger to the fundamental principles of our Constitution. Racial profiling disproportionately targets people of color for investigation and enforcement ... [and] continues to be a prevalent and egregious form of discrimination in the United States.... Since September 11, 2001, new forms of racial profiling have affected a growing number of people of color in the U.S., including members of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities.... Equally troubling has been the federal government’s encouragement of unprecedented raids of immigrant (particularly Latino) communities and workplaces by local law enforcement in cooperation with federal agencies."
8) Surveillance and Privacy: "Increasingly, the government is engaged in warrantless surveillance that vacuums up sensitive information about innocent people.... With this sensitive data, the government can compile vast dossiers about innocent people."
9) Internet Privacy: "Today, private companies are tracking as many of our movements as they can online, selling that information to other companies who in turn share it with law enforcement and the government.... Protections for online privacy are justified and necessary, and the government must help draw boundaries to ensure that Americans’ privacy stays intact in the Digital Age."
10) Immigration Discrimination: "The country was founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all and yet we are now witnessing an unprecedented attack on immigrants’ rights through laws and polices that codify discrimination against immigrants."
11) Pregnancy: "[P]regnancy discrimination remains one of the most persistent forms of bias due to culturally entrenched stereotypes about childcare and the role of pregnant women. This often displays itself in the workplace, through employment discrimination, in correctional facilities through the barbaric practice of shackling, and in personal decisions like access to health care."
12) Right to Protest: "Codified by the First Amendment and upheld over time as one of our most basic rights as Americans, the right to assemble, protest, and petition still continue to come under fire today."
13) Detention: "The United States is currently detaining hundreds of individuals indefinitely without charge or trial. Some are being held at Guantánamo and others at the prison at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. While the government has the right, under the laws of war, to detain prisoners captured on the battlefield until the end of hostilities, no president should have the power to declare the entire globe a war zone and then seize and detain civilian terrorism suspects ... and to hold them forever without charge or trial."
14) Prison Conditions: "The ACLU National Prison Project works to ensure that conditions of confinement are constitutional and consistent with health, safety, and human dignity. Our goals include substantially reducing the existing incarcerated population, especially among people of color, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable populations; ending cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions of confinement; increasing public accountability and transparency of jails, prisons, and other places of detention; and expanding prisoners’ freedom of religion, expression, and association."
15) Birth Control: "The ACLU seeks government policies that ensure access to affordable contraception; respect voluntariness; protect confidentiality; and prohibit sex discrimination, be it in the form of sanctioning religious refusals or treating contraception differently from other care."
For additional issues with which the ACLU is involved, click here.
ACLU STATEMENTS, POSITIONS, & ACTIONS ON KEY ISSUES
Below are numerous examples of ACLU statements and actions vis a vis a variety of key issues. These examples offer a window into the core values and objectives of the organization:
The ACLU's position on immigration was articulated in an essay entitled “Justice for Aliens,” by Steven Shapiro of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Wade Henderson of the ACLU’s Washington, DC office. According to this document, the desire to limit immigration in any way can only be attributed to outright "hostility" that is "motivated by nativism, racism and red scare." The authors write:
“[U]se of the word ‘alien’ is both precise and powerful. In almost a primitive sense, it draws a line between members of the community and those on the outside ... they can be treated unequally ... illegal aliens are not entitled to government benefits.... The rationale for this limitation is not an economic one ... the refusal to grant these often life-sustaining benefits can be explained only by a desire to punish illegal aliens for breaking the law.”
Former ACLU executive director Ira Glasser attributes the concerns that many Americans have about illegal immigration to a "wave of anti-immigrant hysteria."
The ACLU aims to expand anti-discrimination laws, so as to weaken sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens; bar immigration authorities from conducting inspections without a search warrant; require U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to provide free legal counsel to illegal aliens; and ensure illegal aliens' eligibility for welfare benefits.
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the ACLU redoubled its efforts to blur any distinction between citizens and non-citizens, and between legal and illegal immigrants. In Rhode Island, for instance, the organization protested the state government's decision not to accept Individual Tax Identification Numbers (which anyone can obtain) in place of Social Security Numbers (which only citizens can obtain) from driver’s-license applicants. The ACLU argument ran as follows: “As long as there is a substantial population of undocumented immigrants in the state, it makes little sense to deprive them of a license solely because of their immigration status.”
Also post-9/11, the ACLU of Florida urged state officials to oppose a Justice Department initiative designed to give local and state police the power to enforce federal immigration laws. Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said: “While we expect local police to cooperate with federal authorities in apprehending anyone, including non-citizens, who is suspected of criminal activity, local police should not be in the business of detaining or arresting law-abiding aliens based on their immigration status.”
After 9/11, the ACLU organized protests against an INS and Justice Department registration system that required males over the age of 16 who were “temporary visitors” to the U.S. from 25 mostly Arab and Muslim countries, to register with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services or face deportation. In state after state, ACLU leaders called the practice “discriminatory” and depicted it as nothing more than a pretext for rounding up Arab and South Asian men and expelling them from the country. Said an ACLU press release:
“The ACLU has long opposed immigrant registration laws, saying that they treat immigrant populations as a separate and quasi-criminal element of society and that they create an easy avenue for surveillance of those who may hold unpopular beliefs. The fingerprinting and tracking proposal is only the latest Bush Administration action targeted at Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent since September 11. Other discriminatory measures have included round-ups, dragnet questioning, the detention of more than a thousand young men and the targeting of Middle Eastern communities for heightened enforcement of minor immigration law violations.”
Similarly, the ACLU has opposed the use of immigration-law violations as justification for holding or deporting suspects with ties to terrorism, and the use of secret or classified evidence in deportation hearings.
On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, when FBI and Homeland Security agents were tracking down illegal Iraqi immigrants considered to be dangerous, the ACLU set up a telephone hotline and conducted "Know Your Rights" training sessions giving illegals free advice on how to avoid deportation.
Since 9/11, the ACLU, along with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, has led a coalition of civil liberties groups urging city councils across the United States to pass resolutions creating “Civil Liberties Safe Zones”; that is, to be non-compliant with the provisions of the Patriot Act. The ACLU also endorsed the Civil Liberties Restoration Act of 2004, which was introduced by leftist Democrats in Congress to roll back, in the name of protecting civil liberties, vital national-security policies that had been adopted after the September 11th attacks.
The Texas chapter of the ACLU was a signatory to a February 20, 2002 document, composed by the radical group Refuse & Resist, condemning the detention of immigrants apprehended in connection with post-9/11 terrorism investigations. The document read, in part, "[T]hey [the U.S. government] are coming for the Arab, Muslim and South Asian immigrants.… The recent 'disappearances,' indefinite detention, the round-ups,… the denial of any due process … have chilling similarities to a police state.”
In April 2013, when a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators proposed an immigration-reform bill that would bar applicants from becoming legal U.S. residents if they had ever been convicted of at least one felony or at least three misdemeanors, Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU's Immigrants’ Rights Project, said: “There are serious civil rights concerns. There shouldn’t be any kind of automatic disqualifiers.”
Defending Terrorists & Their Abetters
After 9/11, the ACLU complained that the Bush administration was “trampl[ing]" on the rights of Americans in numerous ways. Most notably at issue was a set of Clinton-era guidelines that had severely hampered terrorism investigations prior to September 11th. Known colloquially as “The Wall,” these guidelines created multi-layer bureaucratic barriers to prevent law-enforcement agents who were gathering intelligence on terrorist threats, from sharing information with intelligence agents investigating the very same plots. Tragically, the restrictions mandated by this Wall caused the Clinton Justice Department to deny the pre-9/11 requests of two such agents who sought permission to launch a manhunt for 9/11 conspirator Khalid Almihdar and to search the possessions of al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui; a few weeks later, Almihdar crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. After a review court removed the Wall's restrictions in November 2002 at the request of the Bush Justice Department, the ACLU fought a visible public battle to reinstate the Wall guidelines on behalf of “ordinary” Americans whose Fourth Amendment rights were allegedly being threatened.
In 2003 the ACLU held rallies on behalf of an Intel software engineer in Oregon named Maher Mofeid Hawash, whom U.S. officials were holding in custody on suspicion that he had given material support to Taliban and al Qaeda forces fighting American troops in Afghanistan. (In February 2004, Hawash was convicted of the aforementioned crimes and was sentenced to seven years in prison.)
When University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian was indicted in February 2003 for his involvement with the terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the ACLU tried to thwart the U.S. government's investigation of Al-Arian's role in funding PIJ suicide bombings in Israel. Toward that end, the ACLU argued that the search warrants authorizing an FBI raid of Al-Arian's home and offices were overly broad, and that the items which had been seized as evidence should therefore be returned to him. After Al-Arian was incarcerated, Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, excoriated Attorney General John Ashcroft for “the disgusting raw exercise of power” he was displaying in the Al-Arian case.
The ACLU also came to the defense of radical attorney Lynne Stewart, who in February 2005 was convicted on charges that she had illegally “facilitated and concealed communications” between her client, the incarcerated “blind sheik” Omar Abdel Rahman, and members of his Egyptian terrorist organization, the Islamic Group, which has ties to al Qaeda. On February 17, 2005, just after Stewart had been sentenced for her crimes, the ACLU of Massachusetts declared her prosecution “a chilling testament to what is being done to individual rights and to the rule of law itself in the name of ‘fighting terrorism.’”
In August 2005, the publication G2 Bulletin reported that ACLU lawyers had been present during interrogations of captured al Qaeda- and Taliban-affiliated enemy combatants who were being detained in Guantanamo Bay; in the majority of cases, these attorneys advised the inmates that they were under no obligation to answer military interrogators' questions.
Post-9/11, the ACLU signed an agreement pledging to check any and all of its new hires against terrorism watch lists, so as to comply with Patriot Act regulations and thereby remain eligible to receive nearly $500,000 from the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), an agency which dispenses charitable donations from federal and state employees to more than 2,000 non-profit groups. But in 2004 the ACLU reneged on this promise. As ACLU executive director Anthony Romero wrote at that time: "It is increasingly clear that the Patriot Act and the government's 'war on terror' are threatening the ability of America's non-profit charities to do their essential work. By requiring non-profit charities to check their employees against a 'blacklist' in order to receive donations from the CFC, you are furthering a climate of fear and intimidation that undermines the health and well-being of this nation."
In January 2006, the ACLU—along with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Greenpeace, and several individuals—filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block President Bush's domestic eavesdropping program, which authorized federal surveillance of international phone calls and e-mails of people, including American citizens, who were believed to pose a terror risk. "By seriously compromising the free speech and privacy rights of the plaintiffs and others, the program violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the United States Constitution," said the lawsuit.
The ACLU supported the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Military Commissions Act of 2006, an Act which had authorized the president to detain enemy combatants after a military review.
Many of the ACLU’s campaigns have taken place under the banner of its “National Security Project.” Led by its CAIR-affiliated director, Jameel Jaffer, this Project reveals a broader picture of the ACLU’s ongoing sabotage of American national security:
The ACLU has fought to guarantee that all Guantanamo detainees are tried in civilian courts rather than in military tribunals. This strategy could create a web of interlocking decisions and precedents that would serve to establish a basis for criminal prosecutions and additional civil lawsuits by al Qaeda members against the U.S. military personnel, contractors, Bush administration officials, and intelligence officers.
In September 2007 the ACLU won a court victory when federal judge Victor Marrero struck down a key part of the USA Patriot Act. At issue was a post-9/11 law that gave broader investigative powers to law-enforcement officials. Reported the Associated Press: "The ACLU had challenged the law on behalf of an Internet service provider, claiming that the law allowed the FBI to demand records without the kind of court supervision required for other government searches. Under the law, investigators can issue so-called national security letters to entities like Internet service providers and phone companies and demand customers' phone and Internet records."
In 2008 the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) collaborated to launch the John Adams Project (JAP), whose purpose was to provide legal defense for “high value detainees,” then called “enemy combatants,” being held by the United States government at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. For details of this Project, click here.
In 2009 the ACLU called for the charges against Guantanamo detainee Abd al-Rahim Hussain Mohammed al-Nashiri, a notorious al-Qaeda terrorist who had orchestrated the USS Cole bombing along with numerous other attacks, to be dropped because he had confessed to his crimes under "torture" (i.e., waterboarding) by his American interrogators.
In 2009 the ACLU released a report attacking the U.S. government's efforts to shut down charities that finance terrorism. According to Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project on Terrorism:
"The report ... suggests (contrary to a substantial body of evidence) that the U.S. government was wrong to have acted against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, the Global Relief Foundation and other charities accused of raising money for terrorist organizations."
In the ACLU's calculus, post-9/11 policies targeting these charities have had a "disproportionate" effect on Muslims and "are undermining American Muslims' protected constitutional liberties and violating their fundamental human rights to freedom of religion, freedom of association, and freedom from discrimination." To rectify this situation, the ACLU recommends the repeal of Executive Order 13224, which was issued shortly after 9/11 to create mechanisms for identifying certain individuals and organizations as "specially designated global terrorists." Further, the organization demands that the FBI employ the" least intrusive means" necessary when conducting its investigations, and it calls for a federal ban on law-enforcement practices that "disproportionately" target people "based on ethnicity, national origin or religion." According to Dennis Lormel, who created the FBI's terror financing section, the ACLU recommendations would mean "more money for Hamas."
In 2010, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights jointly filed a lawsuit seeking to end a U.S. government program authorizing the killing of accused terrorists like the Muslim cleric (of Yemeni descent) Anwar al-Awlaki, a dual citizen of the United States and Yemen. (Filed on behalf of Awlaki's father, the suit demanded that before the younger Awlaki could be targeted for military action, the government would have to “disclose the criteria that are used in determining whether the government will carry out the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen.” The suit also demanded that the government present evidence of “concrete, specific and imminent threats to life or physical safety, and [that] there are no means, other than legal force, that could reasonably be employed to neutralize the threats.”) The younger Awlaki, who was an al Qaeda "regional commander," called for Muslims worldwide to wage jihad against America and the West. His sermons were attended by three of the 9/11 hijackers (two of whom he met with privately) and Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan (with whom he communicated regularly, and whose deadly 2009 shooting rampage he praised). Moreover, "Christmas Day bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab identified al-Awlaki as one of his al Qaeda trainers and spiritual advisers.
In February 2011, the ACLU went to court to hold former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld liable for the detention of Jose Padilla, the so-called "dirty bomber" affiliated with al Qaeda.
The ACLU opposes the State Department practice of denying visas to foreign nationals who are believed to have been involved in acts of terrorism abroad.
In the wake of the April 15, 2013 incident where two Chechen terrorists detonated bombs on a crowded street during the Boston Marathon (killing 3 and wounding more than 170), the U.S. government captured one of the perpetrators alive and -- invoking a rare public safety exception triggered by immediate public-safety concerns -- announced that he would not be read his Miranda rights prior to being interrogated. ACLU executive director Anthony Romero condemned that decision, saying: “Every criminal defendant is entitled to be read Miranda rights. The public safety exception should be read narrowly. It applies only when there is a continued threat to public safety and is not an open-ended exception to the Miranda rule."
In late September 2016, the ACLU began representing Ahmed Khan Rahami, an Afghani man accused of setting off two bombs that injured more than 30 people in New York and New Jersey. The previous week, federal judges had denied requests by public defenders who were seeking to be appointed to represent Rahami – on grounds that Rahami was still unconscious following multiple surgeries for the gunshot wounds he had sustained during a shootout with New Jersey police officers, and thus had not yet been officially arrested by federal authorities. ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom said that Rahami's father and wife had requested that the ACLU represent the suspect until a federal public defender or other lawyer could be assigned to him. Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU's New Jersey chapter, said that the denial of Rahami's right to a lawyer “violates the Constitution and needlessly sacrifices civil liberties in the name of national security.” “It is outrageous that Mr. Rahami has been in custody for a week yet has been denied the right to have an attorney visit him to confirm his condition and protect his constitutional rights,” Ofer added.
Homeland Security Measures
In a 2002 federal lawsuit naming Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta as a defendant, the ACLU challenged a new Aviation Transportation Security Act policy prohibiting non-citizens from working as airport security screeners. In conjunction with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the ACLU has lobbied against any policy that would authorize security personnel at airports and border checkpoints to scrutinize travelers from terrorism-sponsoring nations any more closely than other travelers. Depicting racial and ethnic profiling as “shameful and unlawful,” the ACLU has represented Muslim and Middle Eastern plaintiffs in discrimination lawsuits against numerous airlines.
The ACLU opposes the Computer-Assisted Passenger Profiling System (CAPPS) used by airlines to check for various passenger characteristics that historically have been correlated with terrorist activities. In late 1997, when the CAPPS system was first set to be put in place, the ACLU set up a special online complaint form to collect information on incidents of discrimination and mistreatment by airport security personnel. As then-ACLU legislative counsel Gregory Nojeim explained, his organization was "concerned that the CAPPS system will have an unequal impact on some passengers, resulting in their being selected for treatment as potential terrorists based on their race, religion or national origin." The ACLU has sued over the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance programs in Detroit, New York, Oregon, and San Francisco.
The ACLU protested a post-9/11 FBI initiative to count and document all of America’s mosques—wherein extremist calls for violent jihad were not uncommon.
Marriage & Family Values
The ACLU's policy guide states that all civil and criminal laws prohibiting polygamy should be repealed. During a 2005 speech at Yale Law School, for instance, ACLU president Nadine Strossen said: "We have defended the right for individuals to engage in polygamy. We defend the freedom of choice for mature, consenting individuals." This was not a new position for the ACLU, as evidenced by the wedding "vows" of ACLU founder Roger Baldwin in 1919:
"To us who passionately cherish the vision of a free human society, the present institution of marriage among us is a grim mockery of essential freedom.... We deny without reservation the moral right of state or church to bind by force of law a relationship that cannot be maintained by the power of love alone.... The highest relationship between a man and a woman is that which welcomes and understands each other's loves.... The creative life demands many friendships, many loves shared together openly, honestly, and joyously..."
Freedom of Speech
The ACLU asserts that the First Amendment "protects" child pornography, and that consequently there should be no federal or state governmental restriction on its distribution, reproduction, sale, or use by anyone, including pedophiles.
In May 2006, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit arguing that portions of a Kentucky law intended to prevent protesters from disrupting funerals for U.S. soldiers who had been killed in Iraq, were unconstitutional because they placed excessive limits on freedom of speech and expression. The law in question, which had been signed the previous month by Kentucky's governor, banned protests within 300 feet of memorial services, wakes, and burials.
In July 2006, the ACLU filed another federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Jefferson City, Missouri, on behalf of Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, whose parishioners had stoked controversy by picketing the funerals of service members while displaying signs condemning homosexuality. By Phelps' reckoning, God was allowing U.S. troops to be killed in the Mideast as retribution for America's permissive attitudes toward gay and lesbian lifestyles. In the lawsuit, the ACLU claimed that a Missouri law forbidding such demonstrations was unconstitutional because it placed limits on the protesters' free-speech rights based solely on the content of their message.
The ACLU is well known for its opposition to public expressions of religious faith and to displays of religious symbols (particularly Christianity). Joseph Infranco, a senior attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a non-profit legal group that litigates many First Amendment cases involving religious freedom, calls the ACLU “the greatest censor of religion in our nation today.”
The ACLU does, however, selectively accept a small number of cases in defense of such religious expression. On its website, the organization cites more than 100 cases in which it has gotten involved “on behalf of self-identified Christians” and people of “minority faiths.” But as ADF media-relations director Greg Scott points out: "The tiny number of cases in which the ACLU represents a Christian is a flimsy veil in the context of its complete body of work. A few dozen examples is a thin record for a 90-year-old organization that claims to be involved in 6,000 cases per year."
"Church and state" issues have been a recurring theme on the ACLU docket for many years. Each spring, as high-school graduation approaches, the organization distributes a letter to public schools, warning them that no one is permitted to pray or make public remarks referring to their faith at graduation ceremonies. Moreover, the ACLU calls on public schools to censure any speech that might be viewed as having a religious tone.
In July 2005 the ACLU of North Carolina (ACLU-NC) filed suit challenging the state courts’ policy of refusing to allow non-Christians to swear religious oaths using any text other than the Christian Bible. According to the ACLU, "North Carolina’s existing statute governing religious oaths is broad enough to allow the use of multiple religious texts in addition to the Christian Bible." "In the alternative," said the organization, "if the Court does not agree that the phrase 'Holy Scriptures' in the North Carolina state statute must be read to permit texts such as the Quran, the Hebrew Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita in addition to the Christian Bible, then the ACLU-NC asks the Court to strike down the practice of allowing the use of any religious texts in the administration of religious oaths."
In 2006 the ACLU demanded that the town of St. Bernard, Louisiana—adjacent to New Orleans—be prevented from erecting a gold and silver cross as part of its memorial to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, even though the memorial was financed by private funds and was located on private land.
Also in 2006, the ACLU sued the school board of Harrison County, West Virginia over a portrait of Jesus that had hung outside a principal's office for nearly 40 years.
In May 2006, the ACLU provided legal representation for a 17-year-old Muslim high-school student in Louisville, Kentucky who objected to the planned inclusion of a Christian prayer in his school's upcoming graduation ceremony. Said the student: “Terms like Jesus Christ, heavenly father, I talked about the fact I was Muslim and the prayers in the past were offensive to me.” The federal judge who heard this case granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the prayer from being recited during the graduation ceremony.
In a 2006 small-claims court case against a car-rental company in Michigan, a Muslim woman, Ginnah Muhammad, refused to remove her face mask (niqab) while she testfied. When the judge dismissed her case as a result, the ACLU argued on her behalf for a “religious exception” to courtroom attire. Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, stated: “The Michigan Supreme Court should not slam the door of justice on a category of women just because of their religious belief…Under the proposed rule, women who are sexually assaulted do not have their day in court if they wear a veil mandated by their religion.” (Note: the case was not about sexual assault.) Three years later, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that a judge had the right to “require witnesses to remove head or facial covering as [the witness] was testifying,” so as to be able to evaluate potentially significant “facial expressions.”
Both the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) had previously gone to court in Florida (2002), California (2005), Michigan (2008), and Oklahoma (2008) to fight for a Muslim woman’s right to cover her hair or face even while being photographed for a driver’s license or for a police mug shot, or while working at a restaurant or clothing store.
In September 2011, American News Commentary reported that the ACLU was defending the right of Muslims to pray in San Diego's public schools. Kevin Keenan, an ACLU spokesperson in that city, explained: “Performing these prayers is widely recognized as one of the five essential pillars of Islam.” This position represented a stark contrast to the ACLU's four-decade track record of threatening to sue school boards, school administrators, and school children if they prayed Christian prayers on campus; warning school coaches and sporting-event coordinators that if they were to pray in public, they would be sued for violating the Establishment Clause; and sending emissaries to monitor city-council meetings nationwide for evidence that those meetings may have opened with a prayer.
In 2012 the ACLU filed (on behalf of an atheist student) a successful lawsuit against Cranston High School West in Rhode Island, demanding that the school remove from one of its walls a banner bearing a prayer written by a seventh-grader in 1963. The prayer read as follows:
"Our Heavenly Father: Grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers, to be honest with ourselves as well as with others. Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win. Teach us the value of true friendship. Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West. Amen."
Boy Scouts of America
In April 1997 the ACLU of Illinois filed a federal lawsuit challenging the City of Chicago's operation of scout troops affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA)—on grounds that the BSA had traditionally required its members to profess their belief in God, and had barred homosexual men from being scout leaders.
In 2010 the ACLU won a lawsuit against the city of San Diego for violating the separation of church and state. At issue was an agreement, which the city had honored since 1957, allowing the Boy Scouts of America to lease (for $1 per year) 18 acres of city-owned park land for its annual events. But the ACLU went to court on behalf of activists who opposed Scout policies which excluded atheists and homosexuals. The ACLU claimed that the city, by renewing its lease with the Scouts, was violating its own laws prohibiting discrimination against gay people. Further, the ACLU charged that by not opening the lease to competitive bids the city had illegally given a preference to a religious organization that required its members to pledge to fulfill their “duty to God” and to be “reverent.”
U.S. Relations with Hostile Nations
In 2005 the ACLU endorsed an amendment calling for an end to the ban on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba. A year later, the organization demanded an end to bans on academic travel to Cuba. And in 2007 the ACLU argued in federal court that a Miami-Dade County school board had broken the law by removing from its school libraries the book Vamos a Cuba (Let’s Visit Cuba), which, according to Alliance Defense Fund president Alan Sears, "offers a strangely luminous view of life in Castro’s island 'paradise'"; is "devoid of any mention of the oppressive regime instituted by Fidel Castro"; is "filled with breezy commentaries on how Cubans enjoy" fine foods and leisure activities; and features a cover "adorned with beaming children dressed in the uniform of the Pioneers, the Communist youth organization that Cuban children are required to join."
In a similar spirit, the ACLU sued the state of Florida for having banned publicly funded universities from using state money to finance trips to countries designated as sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.
In May 2004, a Sterling Heights, Michigan councilwoman asked the city's attorney to prepare an ordinance requiring businesses with foreign-language signs to also display identifiers such as "bakery," "deli," or "bank"—on the rationale that people passing by the site of a fire, crime, or other emergency could better inform emergency-personnel dispatchers about the location if they could read the signs. But in a letter issued two months later to city officials in Sterling Heights, the ACLU stated: "We write to strongly urge you to abandon the measure as unconstitutional, anti-immigrant and unnecessary." Additional signatories of the letter included officials from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Michigan, and Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development.
When Los Angeles police chief William Bratton vowed in late 2002 to apply “broken windows” policing practices in an effort to reduce crime in the city's most dilapidated and impoverished areas, the ACLU immediately launched an aggressive effort to stop him. As Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald reports:
"A few developers had started converting empty office buildings in adjacent areas of downtown to lofts; the activists seized on this revitalization of Los Angeles’s historic core as proof that the evil capitalists were seeking to afflict the poor. In March 2003, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the department’s efforts to track down the hundreds of violent parole violators and absconders in Skid Row encampments who were driving up violent crime. And in an even more ambitious lawsuit, Jones v. City of Los Angeles, the ACLU charged that application of the city’s ordinance against sleeping or lying on the sidewalk violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment."
Consistent with its belief that the U.S. is a nation infested with racism and injustice, the ACLU of Southern California endorsed an October 22, 2002 National Day of Protest exhorting Americans to rise up and "Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation." The document announcing this event stated: "Since September 11, 2001, the authorities have rapidly imposed a resoundingly repressive atmosphere.… All over the U.S. people are being killed by law enforcement officers at an escalating rate.… Hard-won civil liberties and protections have been stripped away as part of the government's 'war on terrorism.'” Moreover, this document explicitly defended terrorist-abetter Lynne Stewart, al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla, cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, and double-murderer Leonard Peltier. The ACLU depicts all four of these individuals as persecuted political prisoners of a repressive American government.
In June 2006, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the City of Indianapolis because of a newly passed local ordinance that would fine convicted child molesters, predators, and rapists $600 if they were found within 1,000 feet of playgrounds, swimming pools, recreation centers, or sports fields when children were present.
On October 7, 2015, the New York Times reported that the Obama Justice Department was "preparing to release roughly 6,000 inmates from federal prisons starting at the end of this month as part of an effort to ease overcrowding and roll back the harsh penalties given to nonviolent drug dealers in the 1980s and ’90s." “Today’s announcement is nothing short of thrilling because it carries justice,” said ACLU senior legislative counsel Jesselyn McCurdy. “Far too many people have lost years of their lives to draconian sentencing laws born of the failed drug war. People of color have had to bear the brunt of these misguided and cruel policies. We are overjoyed that some of the people so wronged will get their freedom back."
Search & Seizure Procedures
The ACLU seeks to prohibit security personnel at National Football League games from searching fans for weapons before they enter the stadiums. It similarly aims to prevent New York City subway police officers from searching passengers whom they deem suspicious. (By contrast, the ACLU adamantly reserves the right to have its own security guards search the possessions of anyone entering its New York City headquarters building.)
The ACLU was an Organizer of the April 25, 2004 "March for Women's Lives," a Washington, DC rally that drew more than a million demonstrators advocating the right to taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand.
Voting Rights & Voter ID Requirements
In recent years, the ACLU has waged an advertising campaign and filed numerous lawsuits aimed at overturning felon-disenfranchisement laws (which bar convicted felons from voting in political elections) in Florida, California, Georgia, and other states.
In 2007 the ACLU condemned draft regulations for the implementation of the Real ID Act (H.R. 418), a proposal aimed at stiffening federal laws to: protect against terrorists’ entry into the U.S.; prevent people from abusing the state driver's license process to obtain false identification; and expand the legal definition of "terrorist organization" and “engaged in terrorist activity,” as those terms pertain to U.S. immigration law. According to the ACLU, the measure would constitute a "real nightmare" for America that “will only lead to a national identity card system that violates personal privacy …”
In April 2012 the ACLU announced that, in conjunction with the NAACP, it would soon file suit over a recently enacted Pennsylvania voter-identification law. Asserting that the law discriminated against voters who were elderly, poor, disabled, and urban-dwelling, Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said: "It will result in the disenfranchisement of thousands of legal Pennsylvania voters in order to combat virtually nonexistent voter fraud."
In August 2012, the ACLU and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) filed a lawsuit in Iowa to stop state election officials from removing the names of non-citizens from lists of registered voters.
In September 2012, the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging, as an unconstitutional violation of federal and state law, Michigan secretary of state Ruth Johnson’s decision to place, on all political election ballots, a “citizenship checkbox” where voters would be required to affirm that they were U.S. citizens. Kary L. Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU, characterized the checkbox as an example of "cynical voter-suppression tactics" that "should not be tolerated." For details about the ACLU's rationale in opposing the checkbox, click here. Joining the ACLU in the lawsuit were the Service Employees International Union and several other interest groups.
SUPPORTING RACIAL MOB JUSTICE
Following the April 19, 2015 death in police custody of a black Baltimorean named Freddie Gray -- a 25-year-old black man with a long rap sheet -- angry mobs and radical agitators overran Maryland’s largest city with violent riots. They were already angry at the highly sensationalized deaths in recent years of black males such as Trayvon Martin (Sanford, Florida), Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), Eric Garner (Staten Island, New York), and Tamir Rice (Cleveland, Ohio) at the hands of non-blacks, and the seemingly senseless death of Gray further stoked their rage. With tensions boiling in the city, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said on May 1 that she was answering popular “calls for ‘No justice, No peace,'” by laying murder and other criminal charges against six police officers -- three white men, two black men, and one black woman -- in connection with Gray’s death. Renowned criminal lawyer Alan Dershowitz accused Mosby of “overcharging” the officers in order to appease the rioters. He noted that charging a defendant with an excessively serious crime made it more likely that when the case eventually went to trial the jury would acquit, and that more riots would likely be the result.
But the ACLU’s Maryland chapter celebrated when Mosby announced the charges. “For years, victims of police violence, overwhelmingly Black, have sought justice to no avail,” said executive director Susan Goering. “This historic moment is the result of the tireless efforts of families who have lost loved ones to police violence — here in Baltimore, throughout Maryland, and all across America.... We hope this marks the beginning of a nationwide awakening to the many injustices and inequalities that we have allowed to continue for far too long.”
ACLU OFFICIAL CALLS FOR THE USE OF "FORCE" AGAINST SUPPORTERS OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE DONALD TRUMP
In December 2015, Loring Wirbel, a board member of the ACLU's Colorado chapter and co-chair of the organization's Colorado Springs chapter, wrote, on his Facebook page, the following about supporters of Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump: "The thing is, we have to really reach out to those who might consider voting for Trump and say, 'This is Goebbels [Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels]. This is the final solution. If you are voting for him I will have to shoot you before election day.' They’re not going to listen to reason, so when justice is gone, there’s always force ..." When one Facebook commenter implored him, “Let’s not stoop to Trump tactics to combat Trump. Let’s defeat him with reason and data,” Wirbel doubled down on his original position, writing: “But see, most people don’t even know what reason is. They don’t use anything other than the lower brain and would no more make decisions based on logical conclusions than choose milk based on a theme song. The base of the Republican Party is unfamiliar with a cortex.” When another commenter accused Wirbel of “extreme fear-mongering,” Wirbel replied: “I think [Ted] Cruz is just as dangerous, but I don’t think likening Trump to Nazism is fear-mongering at all.” Later, Wirbel called Trump a “hate-speech felon who should be in prison.”
Soon after posting his controversial remarks, Wirbel resigned from his ACLU post. Saying that his comments had been meant "totally as a joke," he characterized his critics as purveyors of "smear politics."
ACLU OFFICIAL "EMPHATICALLY" REFUSES TO CONDEMN ISLAMIC TERRORISM
In a December 2015 article which she wrote for the Washington Post, Rana Elmir -- an American Muslim who was deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan -- declared that she “emphatically” refused to condemn jihadist terrorists “just because I’m Muslim.” In her piece, Elmir likened the systematic slaughters committed by Islamists around the world to “the terror advanced by mostly white men at the alarming rate of one mass killing every two weeks in this country.” Specifically, Elmir drew a parallel between the Islamic State and “Dylann Storm Roof’s attack on parishioners of a historic black church in South Carolina, Robert Dear’s attack on a Planned Parenthood facility, the murder of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” and “the slaughter of moviegoers in Colorado or Louisiana.” Added Elmir:
The ACLU has received funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Arca Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Columbia Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the JEHT Foundation, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Lear Family Foundation, the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, George Soros's Open Society Institute, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, the Scherman Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Arcus Foundation, the Hilda Mullen Foundation, the Lewis B. & Dorothy Cullman Foundation, the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Yellow Chair Foundation.
The current executive director of the ACLU is Anthony Romero.