Copyright © 2001 Henrietta W. Hay
July 20, 2001
A roomful of highly emotional people gathered recently in our new City
Hall and agreed that the Biblical tablet with the Ten Commandments
carved on it should remain on government property. That meeting could
not have been held in many countries of the world, but here in America
the people were free to assemble and express their opinions. Our form
of government guarantees all of us freedom of speech. And one reason
that we still have that freedom is that for eighty years the American
Civil Liberties Union has been fighting a constant battle to maintain
those rights for all of us. In this case, as in most ACLU cases, the
answer will be found in a court of law.
Under our constitution the majority does not necessarily rule. All too
often it stomps on the rights of individuals. For years the majority
believed that slavery was acceptable. For even more years the majority
assumed that women should not be allowed to vote. The majority is not
Each advance in individual liberty has had to be fought for, and since
it was founded in 1920 the American Civil Liberties Union has been at
the forefront of that fight. In many ways it is the nation's most
conservative organization. Its job is to work to conserve America's
original civic values -- the Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- and
defend every individual man, woman and child in the country, including
those who are unpopular, those you don't agree with.
The things they fight against are attempts to take away or limit your
civil liberties, like your right to practice any religion you want (or
none at all); or to decide in private whether or not to have a child; or
to speak out --for or against--anything at all; or to be treated with
equality and fairness, no matter who you are.
In 1925 when biology teacher John T. Scopes was charged with violating a
Tennessee ban on the teaching of evolution, it was the ACLU which
secured the services of celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow for the
defense. After one of the most famous trials in our history, Scopes was
convicted, but on appeal the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed his
conviction. Many years later the United States Supreme Court ruled
that "Creation Science" is not a science, but is actually religion, and
therefore teaching it could not be required by state law under the
constitutional separation of church and state.
From the first lunch counter sit-in through the Freedom Rides and mass
marches, the ACLU supported the civil rights movement's goal of racial
justice and equal opportunity. It defended on First Amendment grounds
its choice of peaceful demonstrations as the principal means for
achieving that goal. Today people of all colors have equal legal
In 1942 the ACLU stood almost alone in denouncing the federal
government's round-up and internment in concentration camps of more than
110,000 Japanese Americans. In 1993 Congress officially apologized for
the action of the government.
In the 1950's when McCarthyism was abroad in the land, the ACLU fought
running court battles against the requirement of loyalty oaths, which a
government gripped by Cold War fever demanded from federal workers and
which many states required of public schoolteachers.
The ACLU remains in the forefront of the struggle to protect women's
rights, both public and private.
The ACLU is not usually popular with the majority, as witness the Ten
Commandments hassle here in Happy Valley. Historically the people
whose opinions are the most controversial or extreme are the people
whose rights are most often threatened and most in need of defense.
My membership in the ACLU goes back many years as I watched son John,
fresh out of law school, become an active, participating member. He
has just finished a total of seven years in two different shifts, as
president Arizona Civil Liberties Union.
The organization continues to wrestle with the age-old problems of
racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance and censorship of
unpopular speech. The ACLU's mission remains that of realizing the
promise of the Bill of Rights.
John Hay writes, "When protection of civil liberties is not in the job
description of government, it must be the job description of an outside
force. That is why there is an ACLU."