"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
Right around Christmas, ACLU Nebraska receives a spate of letters and cards. They are not bearing glad tidings. The writers generally assume that the claptrap about the ACLU being anti-religious is true.
The First Amendment to our nation’s Bill of Rights states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” When I speak in a high schools, many of the questions I get are about the First Amendment. I generally ask students if, since we live in a democracy where many of our public policy decisions are made by the majority, they can vote to make me a Methodist. They answer no. I then ask if they can vote to prohibit me from being a Methodist. Again, the answer is no. High school students get it. They understand that the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment in particular, carve out those areas where individual rights are protected and the majority does not rule.
Several e-mails are circulating that I consider malicious and factually inaccurate. Below are two myths these e-mails pass off as truth, followed by the facts.
MYTH: The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to have all cross-shaped headstones removed from federal cemeteries.
FACT: The ACLU has never once advocated for or initiated any litigation in favor of removing cross-shaped headstones from federal cemeteries. In fact, as the Web site Politifact.com makes clear, there are no cross-shaped headstones at Veterans Administration national cemeteries. The headstones and markers the government issues are rectangular.
What the ACLU did do in 2006 was file a lawsuit seeking to protect the right of veterans and their families to choose religious symbols to engrave on headstones in federal cemeteries. The result of this litigation was not the forced removal of any crosses but rather an expansion of the official government list of religious symbols allowed on headstones by the National Cemeteries Administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to include the Wiccan pentacle.
The e-mail shows pictures of military cemeteries with rows of crosses in them, but most of those cemeteries are in Europe, the final resting place of some American troops killed during World War I and World War II. Those cemeteries are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission and, according to Politifact.com, are technically owned by the foreign country in which they are located but sit on land given to the U.S. for use in perpetuity as commemorative cemeteries. Politifact.com further reports that commission officials are not aware of any effort—by the ACLU or anyone else—to remove cross-shaped headstones from those sites.
MYTH: The ACLU filed a lawsuit to end prayer in the military completely.
FACT: The ACLU has filed no such lawsuit. This totally false assertion is likely misrepresenting a letter the ACLU and the ACLU of Maryland sent in June 2008 to officials at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis asking them to stop forcing midshipmen to participate in the Academy’s compulsory “noon meal prayers.” In the letter sent to the academy, ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah A. Jeon makes clear that the ACLU opposes compulsory religious services mandated by the government, not voluntary religious exercises by academy midshipmen. As Jeon writes: “[T]his request is not motivated by any hostility to voluntary religious exercises by Academy midshipmen, nor do we fail to recognize the important place religious faith holds among many in the military. Indeed, the ACLU has long defended the fundamental right of religious communities, families and individuals—including those in the armed services—to practice their faith freely and openly.” Let there be no question that the ACLU vigorously defends the right of all Americans to practice religion.
What does ACLU Nebraska’s defense of the establishment clause look like in the Cornhusker state? In 2007, we received complaints from Bridgeport, Neb. A public housing complex there is home to elderly and disabled people who qualify for county-funded housing. Administrators at the building had engaged in a variety of religious discrimination violations, including canceling a showing of “Harry Potter” in the commons room due to its so-called “satanic themes,” refusing to drive residents in the county-owned van unless all of them bowed their heads in prayer before the drive, and even entering one woman’s apartment and telling her the candles she had were too “witchy” to be allowed. ACLU Nebraska intervened, and the conduct ended immediately.
In 2004, the Presbyterian Church of the Awesome God in Lincoln was threatened with criminal penalties if they did not relocate. They were renting storefront space in a part of the city that was zoned industrial. Negotiations with the Planning Commission and the City Council resulted in churches being allowed to locate in any zone, industrial or otherwise.
In Wisner, the city threatened a Jehovah’s Witness with violation of a city ordinance governing vendors when the person wanted to distribute materials door to door. ACLU Nebraska intervention clarified a point: You may choose to welcome or to discourage the distribution of this material to your own home, but a unit of government cannot forbid this type of proselytizing
So if you want to criticize ACLU’s position on religion, go ahead, but start with the facts. Our position is pretty succinct. Your right to practice your religion or no religion at all, freely and without compulsion, is among the most fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The ACLU works to ensure that this essential freedom is protected by keeping government out of religion.