The next time one of your conservative friends speaks poorly of the American Civil Liberties Union, have them look here (and here). The ACLU exists to defend the civil liberties of all Americans.
The ACLU vigorously defends the right of Americans to practice religion. But because the ACLU is often better known for its work preventing the government from promoting and funding selected religious activities, it is often wrongly assumed that the ACLU does not zealously defend the rights of religious believers, including Christians, to practice their religion. The cases below - including several where the ACLU even defended the rights of religious believers to condemn homosexuality or abortion - reveal just how mistaken such assumptions are.
Although the cases described below emphasize "the free exercise of religion," the guarantees of the Establishment Clause also protect the rights of religious believers (and non-believers) from having the government promote some religious beliefs over others.
Defending the Rights of Those Identifying Themselves as Christian
The ACLU of Florida (2007) argued in favor of the right of Christians to protest against a gay pride event held in the City of St. Petersburg. The City had proposed limiting opposition speech, including speech motivated by religious beliefs, to restricted "free speech zones." After receiving the ACLU's letter, the City revised its proposed ordinance. www.aclufl.org/pdfs/StPeteLetter.pdf www.tampabays10.com/news/local/article.aspx?storyid=57665
The ACLU of Oregon (2007) defended the right of students at a private religious school not to be pressured to violate their Sabbath day by playing in a state basketball tournament. The Oregon School Activities Association scheduled state tournament games on Saturdays, the recognized Sabbath of students and faculty of the Portland Adventist Academy. The ACLU argued that the school's team, having successfully made it to the tournament, should not be required to violate their religious beliefs in order to participate. www.aclu-or.org/site/PageServer?pagename=Lit_tp_nak www.aclu-or.org/site/DocServer/Lit_OSAA_mtgmry_3_07.pdf?docID=1861
The ACLU of West Virginia (2007) sued on behalf of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) university student who won a prestigious scholarship to West Virginia University. Although the state scholarship board provided leaves of absence for military, medical, and family reasons, it denied the ACLU's client a leave of absence to serve on a 2-year mission for his church. The ACLU filed a religious freedom claim in federal court. www.aclu-wv.org/Newsroom/PressReleases/07_19_07.html
The ACLU of Eastern Missouri (2007) represents Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose religious beliefs lead her to condemn homosexuality as a sin and insist that God is punishing the United States. The protests in which she has been involved have been confrontational and have involved funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. While the ACLU does not endorse her message, it does believe that she has both religious and free-speech rights to express her viewpoint criticizing homosexuality. www.aclu.org/freespeech/protest/26265prs20060721.html
The ACLU of Wisconsin (2007) filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that individual pharmacists should be able to refuse to fill prescriptions that violate their religious scruples, provided that patients can obtain prescriptions from willing providers in a safe and timely manner. www.aclu-wi.org/wisconsin/rights_of_women/ 20070201_Pharm_Refusal_amicus_complete.pdf
The ACLU of New Jersey (2007) defended the right of an elementary school student who was prohibited from singing "Awesome God" in a voluntary, after-school talent show for which students selected their own material. The ACLU submitted a friend-of-the-Court brief. After a favorable settlement was reached for the student, the federal lawsuit was dismissed. www.aclu.org/religion/schools/25799prs20060605.html
The ACLU and the ACLU of Pennsylvania (2007) prevailed in their case on behalf of an Egyptian Coptic Christian who had been detained and who claimed he had been tortured by the Egyptian government because he refused to convert to Islam. After permitting Sameh Khouzam to stay in the United States for nine years based on evidence that he would probably be tortured if he returned to Egypt, the U.S. government changed its position in 2007 and sought to deport Mr. Khouzam based on diplomatic assurances from the Egyptian government that Mr. Khouzam would not be tortured upon return. As a result of the ACLU's advocacy, a federal court granted Mr. Khouzam an indefinite stay of deportation to Egypt. www.aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/egyptiantorture.htm
The ACLU of North Carolina (2007) wrote a letter to the Dismas Charities Community Correction Center on behalf of a former resident who was not allowed to consume wine during communion services while staying at the Center. After the ACLU advised the Center of its obligations under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the Center revised its policy to comply with federal law.
The ACLU of North Carolina (2007) challenged a North Carolina Department of Corrections policy making all religious services in prison English-only, thereby denying access to many inmates. The North Carolina Division of Prisons agreed to review the policy and the need for religious services in languages other than English in the state correctional system.
The ACLU of Delaware (2007) prevailed in a lawsuit brought on behalf of Christians, pagans, and Wiccans, alleging that a department store violated a Delaware public accommodations law by canceling community courses after individuals complained about the religious beliefs that were being taught in the centers. (This case is also listed in Part II.)
The ACLU of North Carolina (2007) assisted with the naturalization of a Jehovah's Witness who had been told he could not obtain United States citizenship because of his conscientious refusal to swear an oath that he would be willing to bear arms on behalf of the country.
The ACLU of Rhode Island (2007) prevailed in its arguments on behalf of a Christian inmate, Wesley Spratt, who had been preaching in prison for over seven years before administrators told him to stop based on vague and unsubstantiated security concerns. After the ACLU prevailed in the First Circuit, the parties reached a settlement under which Mr. Spratt is free to preach again. www.projo.com/news/content/ Preacher_07-31-07_T76IHBQ.34294dd.html
The ACLU of the National Capital Area (2007) brought suit on behalf of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish firefighters and paramedics who wear beards as a matter of religious observance. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with the ACLU that the District of Columbia's policy prohibiting these individuals from wearing beards violated their religious freedom rights. www.aclu-nca.org/boxSub.asp?id=84 (This case is also listed in Part II.)
The ACLU of Louisiana (2006) reached a favorable settlement after filing a federal suit against the Department of Corrections on behalf of an inmate who was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). The inmate, Norman Sanders, was denied access to religious services and religious texts including The Book of Mormon. www.laaclu.org/News/2005/Aug26SandersvCain.htm
The ACLU of Texas (2006) filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a Christian pastor and his faith-based rehabilitation facility in Sinton, Texas. The ACLU of Texas urged the court to reverse a decision that prohibited the pastor from operating his rehabilitation program near his church and also sharply limited the reach of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). www.aclutx.org/article.php?aid=391
The ACLU of Louisiana (2006) filed a lawsuit defending the right of a Christian who wished to exercise both religious and speech rights by protesting against homosexuality in front of a Wal-Mart store with a sign that read: "Christians: Wal-Mart Supports Gay Marriage and Gay Lifestyles. Don't Shop There." www.aclu.org/freespeech/protest/27266prs20061027.html
The ACLU of Georgia (2006) filed a federal lawsuit to help obtain a zoning permit for a house of worship on behalf of the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church after the city of East Point denied the request. www.aclu.org/religion/discrim/25518prs20060419.html
The ACLU of Nevada (2006) defended the free exercise and free speech rights of evangelical Christians to preach on the sidewalks of Las Vegas. When the County government refused to change its unconstitutional policy, the ACLU filed suit in federal court. www.kvbc.com/Global/story.asp?S=3379553&nav=15MVaB2T
The ACLU of Louisiana (2006) reached a favorable settlement on behalf of a student teacher at a public school who objected to classroom prayers led by her supervising teacher. After disagreeing with her supervisor's unconstitutional practice of telling children how to pray, the student teacher received a failing grade and was not permitted to graduate from the teaching program. Under the settlement obtained by the ACLU of Louisiana, the university removed the failing grade and allowed the student to reenroll and complete her graduation requirements. www.firstamendmentcenter.org/news.aspx?id=17478 www.laaclu.org/News/2006/ aclu_settlement_ThompsonvSLU_Oct0306.htm
The ACLU and its affiliates (1999-2006) have been instrumental supporters of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which gives religious organizations added protection in erecting religious buildings and enhances the religious freedom rights of prisoners and other institutionalized persons. The ACLU worked with a broad coalition of organizations to secure the law's passage in 2000. After the law was enacted, the ACLU (2005) defended its constitutionality in a friend-of-the-court brief before the United States Supreme Court and the ACLU of Virginia (2006) opposed a challenge to the law before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. www.aclu.org/scotus/2004/ 20956res20041230039877/20956res20041230.html www.aclu.org/religion/frb/26018prs20060612.html
The Iowa Civil Liberties Union (2005) defended the rights of two teenage girls who, for religious reasons, sought to wear anti-abortion t-shirts to school after school officials threatened to punish them. www.aclu.org/studentsrights/expression/12852prs20050429.html
The ACLU of New Mexico (2005) helped release a street preacher who had been incarcerated in Roosevelt County jail for 109 days. The case was brought to the ACLU by the preacher's wife and was supported by the American Family Association. www.aclu.org/religion/gen/19918prs20050804.html
The ACLU of Michigan (2005) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Joseph Hanas, a Roman Catholic who was punished for not completing a drug rehabilitation program run by a Pentecostal group whose religious beliefs he did not share. Part of the program required reading the Bible for seven hours a day, proclaiming one's salvation at the altar, and being tested on Pentecostal principles. The staff confiscated Mr. Hanas's rosary beads and told him Catholicism was witchcraft. www.aclu.org/religion/govtfunding/22354prs20051206.html
The ACLU of Southern California (2005) defended an evangelical scholar who monitored the fundraising practices of several ministries and their leaders after a defamation suit was brought against him in order to silence him. www.aclu-sc.org/News/Releases/2005/101364/
The ACLU of Pennsylvania (2004-2005) won two cases on behalf of predominantly African-American churches that were denied permits to worship in churches previously occupied by white congregations. In 2005, the ACLU of Pennsylvania settled a case against Turtle Creek Borough brought on behalf of Ekklesia church. After the ACLU of Pennsylvania's advocacy, the Borough of West Mifflin granted Second Baptist Church of Homestead an occupancy permit in 2002 and, in 2004, agreed to pay it damages and compensate it for its losses. www.post-gazette.com/neigh_south/20021029churchsuitsouth2p2.asp www.post-gazette.com/localnews/20021116aclureg6p6.asp www.post-gazette.com/pg/04111/303298.stm www.aclu.org/RacialEquality/RacialEquality.cfm?ID=11083&c=28
The ACLU of New Jersey (2004) appeared as amicus curiae to argue that a prosecutor violated the New Jersey Constitution by striking individuals from a jury pool after deciding that they were "demonstrative about their religion." One potential juror was a missionary; the other was wearing Muslim religious garb, including a skull cap. The ACLU-NJ also argued that permitting strikes based on jurors' display of their religion would often amount to discrimination against identifiable religious minorities. www.aclu-nj.org/legal/closedcasearchive/statevlloydfuller.htm
The ACLU of Nebraska (2004) defended the Church of the Awesome God, a Presbyterian church, from forced eviction under the city of Lincoln's zoning laws. The ACLU of Nebraska also challenged city ordinances requiring religious organizations to meet safety standards not imposed on non-religious groups. www.aclu.org/religion/frb/16347prs20040811.html
The ACLU of Pennsylvania (2004) prevailed in its arguments that the government had to allow Amish drivers to use highly reflective gray tape on their buggies instead of orange triangles, to which the drivers objected for religious reasons. www.post-gazette.com/localnews/20021020amish1020p6.asp
The ACLU of Virginia (2004) threatened to file suit against the Fredericksburg-Stafford Park Authority after the Park Authority enacted an unconstitutional policy prohibiting religious activity in the park and the Park Manager stopped a Cornerstone Baptist Church minister from conducting baptisms in the park. Under pressure from the ACLU, the Park Authority revoked the prohibition and allowed baptisms in the park. www.aclu.org/religion/discrim/16230prs20040603.html www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A16839-2004Jun4 www.aclu.org/ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLiberty.cfm?ID=15897&c=141
The ACLU of Washington (2004) reached a favorable settlement on behalf of Donald Ausderau, a Christian minister, who wanted to preach to the public and distribute leaflets on the sidewalks around a downtown bus station in Spokane, WA. www.aclu-wa.org/detail.cfm?id=57
With the help of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (2004), an Episcopal social services group was able to keep its program of feeding the homeless running. The County Health Department reversed its decision that meals served to homeless people in a church must be cooked on the premises, as opposed to in individual homes. Had the decision not been reversed, the ministry would have been forced to cease the program.
The ACLU of Virginia (2004) told the city of Richmond that it would file suit unless Richmond officials reconsidered their decision to close a Sunday meal program for the homeless at a local church because of zoning violations. "[T]he right of a church to perform a core function of its religious mission," the ACLU wrote, "is protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993." web.archive.org/web/20040109051557/archive.aclu.org/news/ w091196b.html
The ACLU of Nevada (2004) represented a Mormon high school student, Kim Jacobs, whom school authorities suspended and then attempted to expel for wearing T-shirts with religious messages. Jacobs won a preliminary victory in court when a judge ruled that the school could not expel her for not complying with the dress code. www.lasvegassun.com/sunbin/stories/text/2004/sep/09/517482854.html
The ACLU of Michigan (2004) represented Abby Moler, a student at Sterling Stevenson High School, whose yearbook entry, a Bible verse, was deleted because of its religious content. A settlement was reached under which the school placed a sticker with Moler's original entry in the yearbooks and agreed not to censor students' yearbook entries based on their religious or political viewpoints in the future. www.aclu.org/religion/gen/16093prs20031222.html
The Indiana Civil Liberties Union (2004) filed suit on behalf of the Old Paths Baptist Church against the City of Scottsburg after the city repeatedly threatened to cite or arrest members who held demonstrations regarding various subjects dealing with their religious beliefs. www.aclu.org/freespeech/protest/11484prs20040716.html
The ACLU of Massachusetts (2003) intervened on behalf of a group of students at Westfield High School who were suspended for distributing candy canes and a religious message in school.
The ACLU succeeded in having the suspensions revoked and filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit brought on behalf of the students against the school district. www.aclu.org/StudentRights/StudentRights.cfm?ID=11876&c=159
The ACLU of Rhode Island (2003) interceded on behalf of an interdenominational group of carolers who were told they could not sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve to inmates at the women's prison in Cranston, Rhode Island.
The ACLU of Virginia (2002) and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell prevailed in a lawsuit arguing that a Virginia constitutional provision banning religious organizations from incorporating was unconstitutional. www.aclu.org/religion/frb/16040prs20020417.html
The ACLU of Ohio (2002) filed a brief in support of preacher who wanted to protest abortion at a parade, but was prohibited from doing so in an Akron suburb. www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=16471
The Iowa Civil Liberties Union (2002) filed a friend-of-the court brief supporting a group of Christian students who filed a lawsuit against Davenport Schools asserting their right to distribute religious literature during non-instructional time. www.aclu.org/studentsrights/religion/12811prs20020711.html
The ACLU of Nebraska (2002) filed a friend of the court brief in a lawsuit challenging the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission's definition of a church as excluding religious organizations that do not own property. ACLU lawyer Amy Miller said the "definition of a church established by the Liquor Control Commission violated the rights of members of the House of Faith to the free exercise of their religion." www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=16114
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