Muslim Wire

ACLU: Religious freedom crucial

Posted in Non Muslims, Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 21, 2009

By Jerry Daniel Reed

The American Civil Liberties Union has proved by practice that the organization is no foe to the free exercise of religion, the executive director of the ACLU of Texas said Tuesday.

Terri Burke addressed a gathering of the Abilene Interfaith Council at a luncheon at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, her home church while an Abilene resident. Burke, former editor of the Abilene Reporter-News, was hired to the ACLU-Texas post in 2008.

“Yes Virginia, there is religious freedom and the ACLU defends it” was Burke’s topic.

“My work is about the constitution and those pesky little amendments,” she told her audience of about 40.

Burke asked her audience 10 true-false questions regarding noted public religious controversies that the ACLU has tackled.

In one, the ACLU-Texas opposes a Bible course the Ector County (Odessa) Independent School District offers. It’s a boilerplate curriculum that crosses the line into religious indoctrination, she said.

Parents and churches, not government schools, should inculcate religious values, she said.

The Texas ACLU affiliate also has opposed the way the Gideons organization distributes New Testaments in Texas school districts, including the Wylie district in Abilene. Gideon volunteers sometimes go into classrooms to hand out the testaments, she said. In one school, each child was called into the principal’s office to be presented a testament. The proper way to distribute the testaments is to set up a table in an auditorium, for Gideons and other organizations, so that a child can walk up and accept one, Burke said.

Burke said she understands the viewpoint syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts expressed in a recent opinion piece regarding a controversial cross in California’s Mohave Desert. Removal might be legally correct, Pitts said, but he questioned whether it would be the right thing to do.

The cross, honoring America’s World War I veterans, was erected on national park land, and was later donated to a private organization in a response to a campaign to remove it as an unconstitutional instance of establishment of religion.

But Burke added, “If you start making exceptions for the Constitution, it’s a slippery slope.”

The national ACLU’s Web site lists about 100 instances in the last 10 years in which it has sought to vindicate the religious freedom of individuals and groups. About half those clients were Christian, with the rest spread among followers of other faiths, including Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Buddhists.

The cases ranged from defending street preachers, fighting adverse zoning decisions against faith groups, defending students’ rights to wear T-shirts with religious messages or moral messages based on religion, and several involving prisoners’ religious rights, including diet and grooming rules.

In some instances, the ACLU sided with religious conservatives exercising their rights to voice opposition to abortion or homosexuality.

One ACLU defense of Christian religious practices surprised a Washington Post reporter who wrote of a Virginia woman’s successful legal fight in 1999 to display her crèche (Nativity scene) on Fairfax County property:

“When several conservative lawyers rejected her case, (Rita) Warren got help from an unexpected source, the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had traditionally argued against religious displays (on government property), but the group believed the new Fairfax rules infringed on free-speech rights.”

Fairfax County officials had set aside space for public displays, but had vetoed Warren’s crèche because she did not live in that county, the Post reported.

Asked why the ACLU was labeled anti-Christian by a sizable segment of the public, Burke said the organization needed to improve its communication effectiveness.

“I don’t think we have been particularly articulate on that message,” she said.

And though she doesn’t want to bash the media, the longtime journalist said, news that cast the ACLU as adversarial to Christians “is what gets the headlines.” Often people read only the headlines, when reading the entire article would lead to a different perspective, she said.

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