- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2000

Each morning, until two strokes stole her words and movements, my great-grandmother awoke to perform a ritual that blended West African spiritualism with traditional Catholicism: She walked to a makeshift altar in the corner of her bedroom and sat before a bevy of statues representing important deities or saints. She lit her candle and murmured something only she and the spirits heard. Once when I asked about this first-light ceremony, she explained that prayer keeps evil at bay; the devil is a master of disguises, entering people, homes and other places without notice. If she were alive today, she might point to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as her example of the devil incarnate. She might be only half wrong.

Founded in 1920 by Roger Baldwin, an anti-war activist and labor union advocate, the ACLU claims to be dedicated to "holding the government to the promise of freedom set forth in the Bill of Rights." Enthusiasts say the group protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority. They point to the 1933 fight against New York Mayor Frank Hague who wanted to declare parks and public sidewalks his domain and people there could only say what he wanted to hear. Supporters also cite the group's involvement in legal battles of the civil rights movement; its efforts to protect prisoners' rights, gay rights and children's rights. There is no denying and saluting the good the 300,000 member organization has done.

But here's where my grandmother would be half right: Despite its many positive contributions, there are an equal number of bad ones. In the past 20 years, ACLU chapters across the country have repeatedly given cover to racist and fascist organizations. The group has defended suspected drug dealers terrorizing urban centers, despite calls from residents in those communities for stricter law enforcement. It fought against random, unscheduled workplace drug testing, put legal roadblocks in the way of citizens fighting for youth curfews, and opened the door to pornographic businesses despite intense opposition. And, it has gone after religion with the kind of zealotry it claims to want to protect citizens against, obfuscating the critical role of spirituality and its attendant rituals in the development of a whole individual and the preservation of a civil society.

The ACLU gives the perception it is an equal-opportunity defender against the encroachment of church into the domain of the state. But it appears that Christianity and Christians are the objects more frequently of the ACLU's religious animus. The outside joke is that the ACLU still is fighting the Christian Crusades. Whatever the origin, one thing is certain: The group is going to remarkable lengths to strip God out of public institutions with all the unhappy ramifications that portends.

Take for example the fight in Ohio over that state's 41-year-old motto. Jimmie Mastronardo was 10 years old when he suggested "With God, All things are possible" the phrase oft-repeated by his parents and a whole bunch of other people in the United States back in the 1950s. When George V. Voinovich became governor, he had the motto engraved on the floor of the statehouse plaza. The phrase also appeared on tourism brochures and tax forms.

In 1995 the ACLU decided it had had enough of the possibilities of God. It convinced a Cleveland Heights minister, the Rev. Matthew Peterson of Fairmount Presbyterian Church, to file a lawsuit. Arguing on his behalf, the ACLU said that because the phrase is a direct quote from the Gospel of Matthew, it unconstitutionally promotes Christianity over other religions. Earlier this month the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

"I was thinking of a supreme being who makes something happen," Mr. Mastronardo, now 52, said when the Cleveland Plain Dealer caught up with him earlier this year. "It's not your God, it's not my God. It could be Buddha," he said. Everyone understands that. Even my great-grandmother knew that it didn't matter what you called that supreme being God, Allah, Jehovah, Buddha, Damballah. She, my grandmother, my mother and others of their generation knew, too, that there were a bunch of praying sinners, some of whom wouldn't be saved. But their experiences proved to them that life lived without a connection to some God a life absent spiritual or religious expression was bound to become destitute, void of an essential enriching element that fortifies not only the individual but all of society.

People defending the ACLU say the statehouse motto is not appropriate. They argue too that but for the ACLU, who knows how far afield the religious right might travel and the impositions it might try to make on society. The latter is a valid concern. But the balance and restraint people demand from the religious right must also be expected of the ACLU. By narrowly defining the Bill of Rights' protection of religious freedom and then zealously pursuing instances where it feels that freedom is being challenged, the organization has become a co-conspirator in the decadence and spiritual bankruptcy of America which we are all sure is not the legacy it intends.

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