Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Kudos for the ACLU

All in all, I like the ACLU. Like any organization, it's imperfect. But it has a commendable record of consistency in its libertarian mission: which is to protect individual rights. Of course, there are times when the individual whose liberty is being defended doesn't seem worthy of the effort—at these times we just might despise the ACLU. When it comes to defending the right of free assembly for Nazis in Skokie, part of me wants to say: let the bastards rot. But part of me understands that, in defending such beasties, the ACLU is doing a good and admirable thing. We all want our own liberty. We are not as zealous about the liberties of others, especially when it involves something we find repulsive or comes at the expense of something we rather enjoy.

What I do not understand is the almost foaming-at-the-mouth hatred of the ACLU among conservative Christians. They don't seem to know that, time and time again, the ACLU comes to the support of Christians who are denied their right of assembly or expression.

Suppose your child wants to have an extracurricular bible study on public-school grounds, or wants to hand out fliers for a church youth group, or wants to hand out announcements for a cosmological ID talk (I speak from personal experience.) Suppose he is told by a teacher or administrator that he cannot (again, personal experience.) If you need legal advice and help, the ACLU is a good place to look.

Case in point:

A second grader in public school in New Jersey was prevented by school officials from singing "Awesome God" at a talent show. The reason given was the religious content of the song. You can read about it here, in a report from the conservative/Christian WorldNetDaily.

This is such an obvious and egregious violation of the 1st Amendment that, after settling with the student and apologizing, the school board should fire the responsible officials for being so stupid. Their ignorance cost the system time, money, and credibility.

The problem is the prevalent misconception among administrators, faculty, parents and students that anything religious must be banned from the schools. The truth is that religious speech is as protected as any other--at the same levels of "invasiveness". In other words, students can be banned from overt proselytizing (which they can still do with their behavior and actions, which will be more effective) but they cannot be prevented from engaging in whatever speech, literature distribution, and after-hours facility access that is granted to other groups.

What the WorldNetDaily report doesn't mention is the brief filed by the ACLU on behalf of the student. It certainly gives the appearance that WorldNetDaily would prefer that no credit be given to the ACLU.

The ACLU brief is available here. Here is an excerpt:
Plaintiffs sued defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating the federal civil rights of O.T., a second grade student, when defendants prohibited her from singing "Awesome God" at a voluntary after-school talent show (hereinafter the "Talent Show") that the Frenchtown Elementary School, a public school, operates to showcase the talents of individual students within the school. Students who participate in the Talent Show were permitted to select their own song or skit to perform with the only restriction being that the act be "G-rated." Defendants' rationale for prohibiting the song was because of its religious content — specifically, the Defendants believed permitting a student to sing a song with religious content would create an Establishment Clause violation. However, as explained below, since the student's choice of song could not be viewed as the school's own speech, any Establishment Clause concerns were unfounded. The result, therefore, was that the Defendants engaged in ad hoc, content based discrimination without valid justification, and thereby violated O.T.'s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. (Any errors are due to my transcription.)

So when you are furious with the ACLU for defending someone you don't like, at least try to recall that at times they defend the saints. Even if WorldNetDaily doesn't like to admit it.

(Another hat tip to Ed Brayton.)

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