Newark, N.J. - For five decades, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has been a gale force in the most critical social debates of our time and a vigilant guardian of civil rights for all.
In June, the ACLU-NJ will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding and celebrate its standing as one of the largest and most active affiliates in the nation. Created to counter the growing pressures on civil liberties in the state, the affiliate's first official meeting took place on the night of June 16, 1960. Since its start, the affiliate, which has continued to keep its headquarters in Newark, has seen its membership multiply nearly 10-fold, from 1,600 people to more than 15,000.
"We believe that the liberties in the Bill of Rights belong to every American, to all the people in New Jersey regardless of their political beliefs, race, religion or national origin," ACLU-NJ founder and longtime President Emil Oxfeld said in the original press release announcing the formation of the state's affiliate. "We believe these freedoms must be exercised if democracy in our state is to grow and thrive."
Oxfeld went on to list issues that desperately needed attention at the time - due process, racial discrimination, the separation of church and state, and freedom from censorship - all principles the ACLU still defends daily.
"While some of the issues raised in our cases over the years seem archaic by today's standards, many haven't changed at all," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs, who has led the affiliate since 1999, including during the biggest membership spike in its history. "The law has advanced remarkably in areas like women's rights, lesbian and gay rights, and safeguarding personal privacy, but with issues like free speech, police practices and religious freedom, no fight ever stays won."
"The ACLU of New Jersey has been a leader in the crucial civil liberties battles of our time," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the national ACLU. "While each new era brings a wave of assaults on freedom, the ACLU of New Jersey responds swiftly and decisively, protecting the rights of all Garden State residents. It has proven its value on the American political landscape."
Since opening its doors and springing into action - its first official undertaking was commending the Clifton Library's stance against banning books like Lady Chatterley's Lover - the ACLU-NJ has doggedly worked for justice and equality in New Jersey.
In its first decade the ACLU-NJ took strong action following the 1967 Newark Rebellion. Staffers took to the streets in the aftermath, painstakingly cataloguing police abuses to the ACLU-NJ would refer to in its demands for reform. The New Jersey affiliate also emerged even more progressive than the national ACLU, becoming one of the first state affiliates to take a stand against the Vietnam War.
Since those early years, the ACLU-NJ has grown into one of the country's largest and most active state affiliates, with a record of milestones that has earned it a role on the national stage. Among its accomplishments, the ACLU-NJ:
- Defended the rights of women in schools, from a tennis star (represented by Ruth Bader Ginsburg) who won the right to play on the high school boys' tennis team, to the Princeton student who turned its Ivy League all-male eating clubs co-ed.
- Blocked a bill requiring a "one-minute period of silence" for prayer in public schools in 1983.
- Defended 12 motorists who had been racially profiled on the New Jersey Turnpike in the late 1990s.
- Propelled New Jersey to become the first state in the nation to grant equal standing to gay and lesbian couples jointly adopting in 1997.
- Successfully challenged the state's ban on late-term abortion in 1998 and a law requiring parents to sign off on a minor's abortion in 2000.
- Challenged secret detentions and organized locally, fending off attempts to chip away at individual rights following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
- Defeated local laws written to exclude immigrants from housing, won humane working conditions for immigrants, and helped enforce the rights of young immigrants to attend public school.
- Established stronger First Amendment protections in schools and malls, as well as developments run by homeowners associations.
The ACLU-NJ is celebrating the clients, attorneys, leaders and volunteers - many involved in the cases highlighted above - who have built its legacy, from its founders to its future. The stories of these 50 Faces of Liberty can be found at the ACLU-NJ website, https://www.aclu-nj.org
"Society has changed dramatically since our founding, but we've never lost the fire that fuels the ACLU's advocacy," Jacobs added. "We can't always predict what challenges lie ahead for liberty in a changing world, but whatever they are, the ACLU stands ready to defend the fundamental rights of ordinary Americans."
The year-long commemoration will culminate November 4 at the NJ Freedom Fest: A night of laughter and liberties, hosted by comedian Jimmy Tingle and featuring faces from the ACLU past and present, to be held at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick.