Civil Liberties #379, Fall 1993 As The ACLJ Cries +quot;Censorship,+quot; The ACLU Cries +

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Civil Liberties #379, Fall 1993 As The ACLJ Cries "Censorship," The ACLU Cries "Foul" by Lynn Decker Around the country, the Class of '93 departed public high schools under a cloud of rancorous dispute over whether prayer should be allowed at graduation ceremonies. The dust should have settled following the Supreme Court's June 1992 decision in _Lee v. Weisman_, which was crystal clear in its holding that the First Amendment prohibits the inclusion of even non- denominational prayers in such government-sponsored venues as public school graduation ceremonies. However, encouraged by a Scalia dissent that seemed to keep the question open, religious pressure groups and school boards have been hunting for loopholes ever since the _Lee_ decision came down. Foremost among the hunters are televangelist Pat Robertson and his American Center for Law and Justice (see sidebar), which mailed letters to thousands of school officials advising them that student requests to offer prayer themselves, in place of clergy members, must be honored. In support of this claim, the ACLJ and others cite a post _Lee_ ruling that allows Texas school officials to assign graduating seniors the decision whether to have prayer and the option of electing a student volunteer to deliver it. This ruling, which the Supreme Court let stand without review, recognizes "solemnization" as an acceptable purpose of prayer, and the student decision-making process as sufficient for disassociating school officials from the activity. The ACLJ has suggested that the Texas ruling should have expanded application to homerooms, a proposal that envisions the comeback of daily classroom prayer. The ACLJ argues that, unlike invited clergy who can be perceived as officially endorsed "state actors," students are citizens with free speech rights. Thus, a ban on "student-initiated, student-led" prayers amounts to censorship. Of course, this ruse not only evades the clear meaning of _Lee_, but it also highlights religious differences among students in a way that could lead to division and discord. In keeping with our mission to set the record straight as often as may be necessary, the ACLU countered the ACLJ's misleading advice with its own, corrective mailing. It is not the "who," we wrote to school officials, but the "what" of official prayer that violates Constitutional protections -- a reading of _Lee_ that the ACLU shares with numerous state officials who have circulated their own advisory opinions on the subject. ACLU affiliates in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Montana headed off plans for prayer, underway in various school districts, by negotiating settlements that forbid any officially-sponsored prayer, but that allow for separate and private baccalaureate ceremonies. Cases in which we have sought injunctions are pending in several other states, including Idaho and Virginia. In New Jersey, on the occasion of granting the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction, a federal appeals court offered this pointed rebuke to students-decide schemes: +---------------------------------------------------------------------+ "Graduation is a school sponsored event; the fact that the school board has chosen to delegate the decision regarding one segment of the ceremony to the members of the graduating class does not alter that sponsorship, does not diminish the effect of a prayer on the students who do not share the same or any religious perspective, and does not serve to distinguish, in any material way, the facts of this case from the facts of _Lee v. Weisman_." +---------------------------------------------------------------------+ These words notwithstanding, the ACLJ will persist in promoting publicly- sponsored Christmas creches, school pageants, graduation prayer and such other concoctions as "See You at the Pole." The latter event, in which students gather before school hours to pray around the flagpole, first surfaced amid debate over the issue of equal access to school facilities. Schools that permit other extra-curricular uses of their facilities must permit such events, which are legal as long as school officials do not organize or facilitate them. Heavy promotion of "See You at the Pole" by the ACLJ and other groups reveals its purpose: to insinuate religious observance into the fabric of public school life. And what is the religious right's ultimate goal? Clearly, it is to bring about what the Constitution explicitly forbids: governmental establishment of religion in the United States. The ACLU, meanwhile, is in court, in the mail and on-screen providing further information to school superintendents and their legal counsel, as well as a video and brochures to parents and students (see sidebar). Hopefully, come next graduation season the Constitution's timeless lesson of respect for everyone's rights of conscience will have been learned by all. =========================================================== SIDEBAR: Imitation Is (NOT) The Sincerest Form of Flattery =========================================================== The American Center for Law and Justice, established in 1990, mimics the ACLU in more than name. In their own words, the ACLJ +--------------------------------------------------------------------+ "... is a not-for profit public interest law firm dedicated to the promotion of pro-liberty, pro-life and pro-family causes. The Center engages in litigation, provides legal services, renders advice and counsel to clients, and supports attorneys who are involved in defending the religious and civil liberties of Americans. The Center is also developing a national network of attorneys who are committed to the defense of traditional values, and cooperates with other organizations that are committed to a similar mission and serves the public through educational efforts concerning First Amendment and religious freedom issues. As a not-for-profit organization that does not charge for its legal services, the American Center for Law and Justice is dependent upon God and the resources He provides through the time, talent and gifts of people who share our concerns over the erosion of our religious and civil liberties." +--------------------------------------------------------------------+ Last year, Pat Robertson's broadcasting resources met and married the legal strategies of Jay Sekulow, an attorney credited with several high-profile wins in the Supreme Court who is the ACLJ's senior counsel. That combination has brought growth and recognition to the group, which now has 14 lawyers and a budget of $6 million. But make no mistake about it, the ACLJ is no mirror image of the ACLU. One ACLJ brochure, _In Defense of Liberty_, exhorts readers to claim and defend their rights against authoritarian government -- a theme familiar to ACLU members -- but then goes on to identify the ACLU as leading the "pro-death, anti-liberty, anti-family forces." Another brochure, _Religious Cleansing in the American Republic_, equates the "ethnic cleansing" perpetrated against Muslims in Bosnia with alleged religious persecution of the faithful by secular forces in the U.S. Lynn Decker is staff writer in the Publications Office of the ACLU's Public Education Department. ============================================================= ACLU Free Reading Room | A publications and information resource of the gopher:// | American Civil Liberties Union National Office | | "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"


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