The newly elected president of the American Civil Liberties Union says the organization plans to reach out to communities where it is not well-known or not well-understood.
"There's a very widespread misimpression that the ACLU opposes religion" despite its efforts to protect rights to religious expression, ACLU president-elect Susan Herman told The Associated Press after she was tapped Saturday to replace Nadine Strossen, the ACLU's longest-serving president.
In particular, the Brooklyn Law School professor said she was surprised "there aren't more people in the African-American community that believe the ACLU is their organization."
Since its establishment in 1920, the ACLU has set out to preserve First Amendment rights, the right to equal protection under the law, the right to due process, and the right to privacy.
Its stated mission is "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States."
While such rights include the right of Americans of all religions to practice and/or display affirmations of their faith in public, the ACLU has been criticized as anti-religious for its extreme stance on separation of church and state and the efforts it has taken to remove faith-linked displays from public property.
The ACLU has filed lawsuits throughout the United States to remove Christian crosses and the 10 Commandments from public buildings, claiming that they promote one religion over another. It also opposes religious ceremonies and certain types of prayer or "moments of silence" in public schools or schools funded with public money.
"The American Civil Liberties Union claims to be dedicated to protecting the freedoms of all Americans. But its legacy is one of defending pornographers, child molesters, abortionists, and stripping our nation of its Judeo-Christian heritage," states the Traditional Values Coalition in a special report on the ACLU.
Among the ACLU's more recent church-state cases is the recent lawsuit of an Ohio county judge who re-posted the 10 Commandments in his courtroom after a court's order to remove it.
The ACLU claims that Richland County Judge James DeWeese's newest display, which includes what he describes as "humanist principles" posted alongside the Ten Commandments, is a "backdoor method to promote his own religious agenda in the courtroom."
"The most troubling aspect of Judge DeWeese's courtroom display is that it states he uses his religious views in his professional role as a judge," ACLU of Ohio Cooperating Attorney Mike Honohan told The Mansfield News Journal. Honohan was referring to the statement below the two lists that says DeWeese believes in moral absolutes such as the Ten Commandments, rather than what he called the moral relatives of the second set of principles listed.
"Courts should be a place where all people are treated equally, but those who enter his courtroom are given the message they will be judged based on his personal religious views," Honohan stated.
In May 2008, the ACLU of Ohio had asked federal Judge Kathleen O'Malley to hold DeWeese in contempt of court for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.
O'Malley declined to do so, however, because she said the display was not a duplicate of the previous sign and included other text, according to The News Journal.
As the federal judge did not rule on whether the current sign was constitutional, the ACLU filed a new lawsuit on Oct. 7 in the U.S. District Court of Northern Ohio, alleging that DeWeese's intention to promote religion in his courtroom remains the same.