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ACLU Goes to Court to Protect Religions

Published in the Asbury Park Press
December 28, 2004

ACLU Goes to Court to Protect Religions, Not Undermine Them

By Deborah Jacobs

This month, the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey have received an unprecedented number of inquiries about holiday displays on public property and the separation of church and state. What distinguished this year's calls is that they came from members of the press, not members of the public. Considering that the ACLU-NJ has not engaged in any religious display issues this year, the media's attention has seemed misplaced.

It all made sense, however, as we learned that the calls were primarily generated by the efforts of the Alliance Defense Fund and other conservative groups engaged in a public relations campaign to present the ACLU as anti-religion and anti-Christmas.

The ACLU's stance on the separation of church and state is as much about preserving and protecting religious practice as anything else. By fighting to see that the government acts with neutrality toward religion -- neither endorsing nor discriminating against particular faiths -- our system ensures religious liberty for all in our diverse society. The ACLU defends this founding American principle.

Religious ideals are best represented by those within the religion itself, not by the government. The ACLU defends the rights of private citizens, churches and organizations to put up any religious displays they choose.

The example of the creche on public property illustrates the danger of entangling government with religion. The idea of a creche, menorah or other distinctly religious symbol erected on city or county hall lawns has concerned many Americans for whom these displays send a message of exclusion. If the government endorses or associates itself with a particular religion, those who belong to other religions are marginalized and wonder whether the government will equally represent them.

Some community members have had the courage to voice their concerns about religious displays on public property and have taken the issue to court. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a mix of rulings that have resulted in an odd legal status. If a religious symbol erected on public property stands alone, then it is not constitutionally permissible. If it is part of a larger display that includes a variety of secular symbols, such as Frosty and reindeer, then it is allowed.

A consequence of these rulings is that purely religious symbols like the creche are now surrounded with a littering of plastic secular displays that dilute the religious message of the creche. The ACLU has heard from Christians who support our efforts for this very reason; government entanglement with religion threatens the autonomy and purity of religious practice in America.

There are two aspects to the protection of freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights. One is the establishment clause, which brings us the separation of church and state. The other is the free exercise clause, which addresses government censorship or suppression of religion.

The ACLU regularly defends the right to exercise one's religious beliefs. The free exercise cases that the ACLU takes protect religious practice. Just last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU-NJ in a case concerning the dismissal of jurors on the basis of religion. In Nebraska, the ACLU recently defended a church facing eviction; the Pennsylvania ACLU represented a Baptist Church denied a zoning permit; the ACLU of Michigan represented a high school valedictorian whose Christian message in his yearbook was censored; the Massachusetts ACLU represented a student who received punishment for distributing candy canes with religious messages; the Iowa ACLU represented a student prohibited from distributing Christian literature at school; the Massachusetts ACLU defended the rights of a church to run "anti-Santa" ads in the Boston subways. The list goes on.

The ACLU is not anti-religious or anti-Christian. We are pro-American and we are here to preserve the traditional American values that make the United States the free and great land we love. James Madison wrote in 1803 that "The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries." This, as columnist Molly Ivins has said, is a principle worth being a pain in the butt for.

Deborah Jacobs is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Newark.

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