Dispatches from the Creation Wars

ACLU Defending Religious Liberty

Contrary to the hysterically overblown view so common on the religious right (a view intentionally planted there by frauds and hucksters like Pat Robertson), the ACLU regularly goes to court to defend Christian churches and organizations. I’ve mentioned in the past their work on behalf of Jerry Falwell (himself a fraud and a huckster, but the Constitution covers his right to be one as well) against the City of Lynchburg to overturn a city ordinance limiting the amount of property a church could own within the city limits. They also defended Falwell in a case that overturned the state of Virginia’s constitutional provision banning churches from incorporating. They also filed briefs defending the Lamb’s Chapel in support of their claim against a school district for not allowing them access to school facilities to show a series of anti-abortion films (all other community groups were allowed to rent school facilities and the Equal Access Act says they cannot discriminate against religious groups). Here are a few other cases going on right now where the ACLU is defending the free exercise of religion.

The ACLU of Nebraska is defending a Presbyterian church, the Church of the Awesome God, against the city of Lincoln. The city is trying to force the church to put in expensive industrial safety equipment because it’s on the edge of an industrial area, a requirement that would result in the church having to shut down entirely. The ACLU office notes that the city is not requiring the same thing of businesses in the same area, only of the church, saying, “If there were a true danger requiring these changes, should it not apply to day care centers and health clinics also?” Indeed there would be. Says Tim Butz, the executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska:

“In addition to being the worship center for their members, this church also gives back to Lincoln in every way they can,” Butz said. “They are a food bank collection point, they provide low-income families with holiday cheer and offer their church space for meetings of UNL Christian youth, they do outreach at the City Mission and hold rummage sales for charity. The Church of the Awesome God should be given a ‘thank you’ by the city, not letters threatening them with eviction.”

Boy, that sure sounds anti-Christian to me. That sure sounds like an organization intent on stamping out Christianity from our society, doesn’t it?

In Michigan, the ACLU is appealing a case to the Supreme Court involving a Catholic man who was forced by a lower court to take part in a Pentecostal drug rehab program:

Joseph Hanas of Genesee County, now 22 years old, pled guilty in the Genesee Circuit Court to a charge of marijuana possession in February 2001. He was placed in the county’s “drug court” for non-violent offenders, which allowed for a deferred sentence and possible dismissal of the charges if he successfully completed the Inner City Christian Outreach Residential Program.

Unbeknownst to Hanas when he entered the program, one of the goals of Christian Outreach was to convert him from Catholicism to the Pentecostal faith. According to ACLU legal papers, Hanas was forced to read the bible for seven hours a day and was tested on Pentecostal principles. The staff also told him that Catholicism was a form of witchcraft and they confiscated both his rosary and Holy Communion prayer book. At one point, the program director told his aunt that he “gave up his right of freedom of religion when he was placed into this program.” Hanas was told that in order to complete the program successfully he would have to declare he was “saved” and was threatened that if he didn’t do what the pastor told him to do, he would be “washed of the program and go to prison.”…

“This case underscores the danger of the state mandating participation in a religious institution,” said Greg Gibbs, one of the ACLU cooperating attorneys working on this case. “Mr. Hanas’ free exercise of religion has been greatly jeopardized.”

In Richmond, Virginia, the ACLU threatened legal action against the Falmouth Waterside Park, a government-run state park, because they had told a the minister of a local Baptist church that they could no longer baptise people in the park:

The controversy over baptisms in the park surfaced on Sunday, May 23, when Robinson told Rev. Todd Pyle of the Cornerstone Baptist Church that religious activities were not allowed in the park. Pyle was in the park at the time and had just performed a series of baptisms in the Rappahannock River, which borders the park.

The ACLU of Virginia immediately informed Pyle that he had a constitutional right to conduct baptisms in the park and threatened to challenge in federal court the Park Authority’s ban on religious activities. The ACLU also discovered that the Park Authority does not have written rules governing use of the park.

Pyle decided not to contest the ban, but earlier this week Rev. John H. Reid of the New Generation Evangelical Episcopal Church announced plans to defy park officials by performing a baptism in the park this Sunday. The ACLU again acted, offering assistance to Reid and informing park officials that they must allow the baptisms to proceed.

“The rules are really very simple,” Willis (Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia) said. “Government officials merely need to make sure that religious activities have the same rights as any other activities in a public park. If swimming is allowed, then baptisms must be allowed. If groups can gather for sports or cultural activities, then groups can gather for religious ceremonies.”

The park manager, after receiving a letter from the ACLU office, changed his mind and allowed the baptisms to take place. Damn those heathens at the ACLU! And in New Jersey, the state Supreme Court, citing the arguments in an ACLU brief, ruled that potential jurors could not be kept off a jury because they professed religious views during pretrial questioning:

“In this country, people have a right to express their religious beliefs without fear of discrimination by the government,” said ACLU of New Jersey Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Excluding people from jury pools based on their religious belief or expression violates the principles of freedom found in the Bill of Rights.”

It should perhaps also be noted that the ACLU was a staunch supporter, along with groups like the Family Research Council and the Christian Legal Society, of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that was passed in 2000, as well as the Equal Access Act, which guarantees that religious groups have the same access to public facilities that any other community groups do. And of course there was the situation in Massachusetts, where the ACLU defended the right of an elementary school student who wanted to hand out candy canes to his classmates with a card attached that had a Christian message on it. Are these the actions of an organization that hates Christianity and wants to forcibly remove it from our society, as so many folks on the religious right claim?