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Aug 1, 2004 3:23 pm


On Tearing Up My ACLU Membership Card ...



If you were picking out a typical card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, it wouldn't be me. As a Southern, white, evangelical Protestant, Republican male of German descent, I just don't fit the demographic. Yet, I've been a member of the ACLU for 25 years. Every once in a while it does something that makes me wonder why I belong to it, but whenever it's time to sign on for another year, I do so gladly.

As a German-American, I remember that the ACLU was founded in 1920 to defend the civil liberties of all of us who were suspected of disloyalty in World War I. As a child of the civil rights movement, I remember that it helped to shoulder the long legal battle for civil rights for all Americans. Fearing the government's co-opting of our religious communities by handouts and subventions, I know the ACLU can be counted on to combat that subversion of religious liberty.

All human institutions face critical moments, when they are challenged by a crucial issue. Sometimes they fail the test. Many ACLU members think it faced and failed a crucial test in 1940, when a seriously divided board of directors voted to exclude Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as a member of the board because she would not repudiate her membership in the Communist Party. I'm not so certain that it failed that test. I know that no Communist regime has honored what I regard as elemental civil liberties.

Sometimes an organization's enemies tell you that you should belong to it. Currently, the three ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments that former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore once installed in the state's Supreme Court building is beginning a national tour. The tour opened yesterday in Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the notorious Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Uniting the gaudy display of public piety with the teaching of creationism is warning enough. But the case is sealed for me, when one of its sponsors announces:"The ACLU is still the enemy."

The ACLU has just met another critical moment in its history. For over 20 years, it has benefitted from the Combined Federal Campaign, which allows federal employees to make voluntary contributions to non-profit organizations, chosen by the donors from a list of 2,000 non-profits. Under the Patriot Act, however, participating organizations must agree not to employ anyone whose name appears on the government's list of suspected terrorists. Some names are there by mistake and people who are listed there have no means of challenging the list. So, the ACLU has refused to abide by the terms of the Patriot Act. It will take a loss of about $500,000 annually which it has received from the Combined Federal Campaign and it will sue the United States government. My membership card is so scotch-tapped together. I'm thinking about renewing my membership early this year.

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David T. Beito - 8/2/2004

The ACLU defender on NPR this morning should be working on a presidential campaign. He has the spin down to a high art.


Ralph E. Luker - 8/1/2004

Yes! It is one of those choices that makes you wonder "What were they thinking?"


Jonathan Dresner - 8/1/2004

I was reading an article about the monument tour at breakfast, and when I got to the part about the tour starting at the site of the Scopes Evolution trial, my wife piped up "is this a 'bad court decisions' tour? Are they going to visit Plessy's hometown, or Dred Scott's next?"


Richard Henry Morgan - 8/1/2004

One might say it is a part of the definition of the human condition. I suspect the ACLU is being vague about the constitutional grounds precisely because they have thought through the consequences of legislation.


Ralph E. Luker - 8/1/2004

I'd be surprised, Richard, if you've never had the experience of being caught out on principle, such as they are, only to recover late in the day. It's happened to me before.


Richard Henry Morgan - 8/1/2004

I usually give the ACLU good points for principle, even when I don't agree with them. For instance, I don't understand the principle that finds the symbol of the cross on a city seal objectionable on separation grounds, but finds no problem with the Native American divinity Pomona. And I once heard Nadine Strossen on C-Span, when questioned on the ACLU's stand on the Second Amendment say the ACLU vinidicated gunowners rights in bringing legal action over the Federal Government's searches of Cabrini Green Public Housing -- when the principle at stake was not the Second, but the search and seizure amendment. The ACLU's only stand on the Second is a fence-sitting assertion that there is no unfettered right to own a gun under the Second (as though any right were unfettered).

But that is nit-picking, I imagine. What I don't understand on the more substantive level is why they don't state the grounds of their constitutional objection to the Patriot Act, rather than a vague reference to constitutional rights. This could end up opening up a real Pandora's Box. By what constitutionally safe procedure does the ACLU qualify for the Federal Campaign, and, say, a charitable arm of the Ku Klux Klan does not? Hmm. I hope they give that some consideration. And I don't think they covered themselves in honor by agreeing to the regs, only to claim, when caught out, that they had no intent to comply. Not up to the usual ACLU standard, I think. Even though it came a little late in the day, they seem to have found their principles again -- such as they are.


Ralph E. Luker - 8/1/2004

HNN's system is giving bloggers a problem this morning and I can't get into the system to correct the link. See: here.


Richard Henry Morgan - 8/1/2004

Ralph, I hit the link in your article, and it took me to a story about the monument. I had gathered from the news accounts that the ACLU signed on to the requirements in order to get the money, and then, when exposed, said they signed on with no intention of abiding. Where does the truth lie in this matter?

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