ACLU defends all speech

Program director says organization is not anti-religious

Posted: Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The way Jeremy Gunn sees it, the American Civil Liberties Union stands for the things in which most Americans believe.

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The director of the ACLU's Washington, D.C.-based Program on Religious Freedom and Belief spoke at a Juneau fundraiser for the interest group Sunday night.

"The ACLU will go to court - we have gone to court - to defend the right for people to talk about religion in public," he said. What it opposes is government endorsements or interpretations of religion.

"Part of my goal at the ACLU is that we frame the issue in the right way," he told people attending the dinner at the Silverbow Inn and Bakery.

Michael W. McCleod-Ball, executive director for the ACLU of Alaska, said there have been highs and lows in the regard people hold for the organization, but it continues to fight for people's civil rights.

One Juneau religious leader questioned the group's claims of religious tolerance. Brian Ewing, pastor at Juneau's Calvary Fellowship, said Monday that from what he has seen, "from a distance - probably in 99 percent of their cases - their position is anti-Christian."

Ewing, who is general manager of KVIM, licensed by the Federal Communications Commission as a low-power FM station, said that nowadays people tiptoe around any mention of Christ in schools. "There is no way around the fact that (America's) Founding Fathers were very religious and spoke of God in the Constitution."

Gunn said Sunday the ACLU needs to do a better job in defining what it is - something it can't do by winning a court case.

Before coming to Juneau on Sunday, he was in Anchorage and debated Kelly Shackelford, general counsel for the Liberty Legal Institute, a Plano, Texas-based organization intended to protect religious freedoms and First Amendment rights for individuals, groups, and churches.

Gunn, who came to the ACLU in 2005, questioned the charge that religion is under attack. "The United States, unlike all developed countries in the world, is religious," he said. "Religious liberties are not in danger in the United States. It is mind-boggling that people could think secular humanists are running this country and the ACLU is running this country."

Gunn challenges people to come up with one self-professed atheist, humanist or agnostic in government, on the Supreme Court or in any state legislature.

"A few years ago we had (Minnesota Gov.) Jesse Ventura," he said. "He was the last self-professed agnostic in United States politics."

Freedom of open worship for all denominations didn't come with the country's founding, as many believe, but after a lot of lawsuits, Gunn said. Now people are siding with "pseudo-religious" issues that have more to do with politics than the Bible.

In December, some Americans believed Christmas was under attack. A conservative group sent carolers to the ACLU offices in Washington, D.C., carrying signs such as, "Don't sue us." In a guest editorial published in USA Today, Gunn wrote that ACLU staff members, including an ordained Baptist minister, greeted them by sharing cookies and warm drinks and joined in the singing. He finished the editorial by wishing everyone a merry Christmas from the ACLU.

Whether people attend church is the best predictor of whether they will vote, he said Sunday night. The problem as he sees it is that they are voting, based on religious beliefs, for people who don't respect civil liberties.

As someone who believes in civil liberties, he added, "it is not going well for us."

"We have to convince people to take their civil liberties more seriously," Gunn said.

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