Civil Liberties

No Encroachments on the First Amendment

The ACLU discusses civil rights history, intelligent design and abortion


On the second day of the American Civil Liberties Union annual membership conference here in Washington DC, the civil liberties group offered a plenary panel discussion that ranged from its historical civil rights successes to more recent victories over maintaining the constitutional separation of church and state to upcoming battles over abortion. With regard to history the ACLU panel welcomed Rev. James Lawson. Lawson was a significant figure in the non-violent civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. He was once expelled by Vanderbilt University for organizing sit-ins to integrate lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn. This year he returned as a distinguished visiting professor at the university. His involvement with the ACLU began early when they took him on as a client who was conscientiously objecting to being drafted into military service. He served 13 months of a 3 year prison sentence for refusing the draft.

Lawson made it clear that he is still concerned not only with classical civil liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to vote but also with "economic exploitation" and "plantation capitalism." He ended his talk on what he sees as the continuing civil rights struggle with one of his favorite quotations from Fidel Castro, which Lawson rendered as "History will vindicate me." (Lawson is likely slightly misquoting Castro's famous 1953 speech "History will absolve me.") At least part of the audience seemed a tad uncomfortable with a quotation from Cuba's communist dictator and one voice muttered, "I don't think so."

Next up was a celebration of the ACLU's victory over the attempt to smuggle religion into public school biology classes in Dover, Penn. The chief ACLU attorney on the case, Vic Wilczak, introduced nine of the eleven clients who sued the Dover school board over the matter in federal district court. Wilczak briefly reprised the case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in which a federal judge ended up ruling that intelligent design is a religious view, not science. The citizens of Dover voted out the entire school board that had approved the teaching of intelligent design. One of the ACLU's clients, Bryan Rehm, teaches Bible school, was elected to the school board. Rehm told the audience of several ugly moments during the campaign. For example, one voter told him that if the pro-intelligent design school board lost, "the fags are going to come out of the bushes."

The final speaker on the panel was Cecilia Fire Thunder who was the first woman chosen as President of the Oglala Sioux. Fire Thunder challenged the South Dakota law that would ban all abortions except those done to save the life of the mother. The law passed as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. "I will personally establish a Planned Parenthood clinic on my own land which is within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation where the State of South Dakota has absolutely no jurisdiction," she declared. In response, the Oglala Sioux tribal council voted to remove her from office for her stand. Fire Thunder told the ACLU conferees that she was still working to establish the Sacred Choices Wellness Center on the reservation.

My favorite moment during this panel came when intelligent design plaintiff Fred Callahan repeated his response to the claim that he was intolerant for opposing intelligent design. He responded, "What am I supposed to tolerate? A small encroachment on my First Amendment rights? Well, I'm not going to." Neither should any of us, ever.