Believe it or not, there was a time when the American Civil Liberties Union was a respected organization that fought to protect civil liberties for all Americans. But that time is long past. Today the ACLU is a highly ideological organization that opposes the government’s efforts to fight terrorism and seeks to overturn traditional religious practices that have nothing whatever to do with threats to civil liberties.

Consider, for example, some recent actions taken by the ACLU. The United States is fighting a war against foreign terrorists who claim to act for religious reasons. The ACLU defends them. Yet at the same time it is suing Americans who wish only to honor their religious heritage.

Though the ACLU points to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to support its absolutist position on religion and government, the founding fathers made clear that this clause meant only that government could not establish a national religion or favor one religion over another. Indeed, they sought to protect and to promote religion as a vital support for moral virtue and individual liberty. This was the broad understanding of just about every political leader and constitutional scholar down to, roughly, the 1950s.

The absolutist position was in fact the handiwork of several members of the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Justice Hugo Black, who wrote: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between Church and State. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” This is the doctrine that the ACLU pursues as it seeks to fortify and extend this wall of separation between church and state, between religion and government, and between moral values and political debate.

Consider these recent ACLU actions:

  • The ACLU threatened to sue the Newton County (Georgia) School board to force it to remove “Christmas” from school calendars. The school board complied, changing “Christmas Break” to “Winter Break.”

  • In 2001, the ACLU threatened to file a lawsuit when church parishioners built a Nativity scene in a public park in Breaux Bridge, La. This was but the latest installment in a long tradition of ACLU opposition to Nativity scenes in public places.

  • The ACLU also threatens lawsuits against states and cities that allow displays of the Ten Commandments on public grounds and in public buildings. In recent years, it has filed suits against the cities of Ringold, Ga., Duluth, Minn., and Providence, R.I.

  • Following an ACLU lawsuit, the Board of Education in Columbus, Ohio, began limiting religious music at school functions. One high-school concert was cancelled because the program included songs containing religious references.

  • The ACLU urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a lower court decision declaring unconstitutional the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has so far refused to follow the ACLU’s guidance.

The ACLU’s tactics have wide repercussions, and have been alarmingly effective in stifling religious speech and expression. Because of their fear of lawsuits, public officials often act preemptively to remove any mention or display of religion in the public square.

Late last year, for example, Denver’s mayor replaced a “Merry Christmas” banner atop the City and County Building with one that read “Happy Holidays.” And organizers of the city’s Christmas parade refused to let a local church participate.

In the same vein, the school district of South Orange and Maplewood in New Jersey banned Christmas carols in the public schools. This ban even included instrumental Christmas music, a decision defended by District Superintendent Peter Horoschak who claimed, “If you’re familiar with the tune, you know the words.”

In the San Francisco Bay area, school principal Patricia Vidmar censored a fifth-grade teacher’s lesson plan because it used documents containing references to God. Teacher Steven Williams fought back by filing his own lawsuit. The offending materials included the diary of John Adams, George Washington’s journal, and the Declaration of Independence.

The United States has one of the highest rates of church attendance in the Western world. Surveys have consistently shown that an overwhelming majority of Americans believes in God and that most attend church or synagogue on a regular basis. Yet because of persistent goading from the ACLU and its supporters, public officials are increasingly afraid to permit any expression of religious belief in schools, in parades and other public ceremonies, or in public places in general. Sooner or later, such extreme and unjustified measures are bound to provoke a reaction among the great majority of Americans who do not wish to see religion banned from the public square.

But while the ACLU attacks religion here at home, it is trying its best to protect violent and tyrannical religious fanatics abroad.

At one time, many decades ago, the ACLU was actually concerned about threats to this country. In 1940, the organization expelled Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from its board of directors for her association with various radical causes, including her membership in the Communist Party. But since the 1960s, the ACLU has taken a radical turn on national security issues. It has even gone so far as to favor the abolition of CIA clandestine activities and the prohibition of all domestic wiretaps.

Today the Patriot Act is a central focus of ACLU activities. The Act was passed after 9-11 by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress to give law enforcement agencies the necessary tools to protect the nation against further terrorist attacks. So far, the Act has worked well in both protecting the nation from terrorism and guarding fundamental civil liberties. But tell that to the ACLU, which is determined to weaken the Act in key areas.

For example, a section of the Patriot Act permits law enforcement officials to conduct searches without immediately informing the suspect. The purpose of this provision is to prevent the suspect from destroying evidence or from informing associates of the search, and to permit officials to follow up quickly on evidence that has been gathered. Police nevertheless have to obtain a warrant from a judge who has to be convinced that the search is likely to provide evidence of criminal conduct, and the suspect must be informed within a reasonable time after the search. Yet the ACLU has tried to overturn this provision, calling it a “sneak and peak” procedure that will turn innocent citizens into terror suspects.

As a matter of fact, the powers in this part of the Act are not new at all. For years federal authorities have used this kind of search authority against drug dealers. The Patriot Act merely extends this authority to terror suspects. Today law enforcement can monitor a suspect’s home computer for e-mail messages outlining possible terror plots. If the police had to warn a suspect in advance that his computer was going to be searched, he could tip-off his co-conspirators, and thus make it difficult for officials to round them up.

The ACLU also misleads the public about the constitutionality of the Patriot Act. Last October, in the case of Doe v. Ashcroft, the ACLU persuaded a federal judge to overturn a section of a 1986 law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act that permitted the FBI to search telephone and Internet billing records in terrorism investigations. The ACLU falsely implied in a press release that a section of the Patriot Act had been overturned: “As the decision suggests,” their press release said, “certain provisions of the Patriot Act should never have been enacted in the first place.”

The ACLU is lavishly funded by wealthy foundations and individuals, by annual dues paid by some 400,000 individual members, and through payment of court-ordered attorneys fees. In recent years, the ACLU Foundation in New York has taken in annual revenues of approximately $50 million – funds which are available for its aggressive legal and public relations campaigns. In 2003, the last year for which financial data are available, the ACLU Foundation reported more than $150 million in assets.

The Ford Foundation has been especially generous, pledging $7 million in 1999 to the ACLU’s endowment fund, and making additional donations in 2001, 2002 and 2003 amounting to $5.3 million. But Ford has been joined in these benefactions by several other well-known philanthropies. The Packard Foundation donated $1.6 million in 2001, and the Hewlett and Rockefeller Foundations donated $450,000 and $275,000, respectively, in 2002. In recent years, the ACLU has received $2.9 million from George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Numerous other foundations have donated lesser sums. All, it may be assumed, endorse the ACLU’s agenda of driving religion out of the public square and of weakening the government’s ability to fight terrorism.

It appears, however, that the ACLU’s agenda may have gotten too extreme even for some of its most ardent supporters. In late 2003, the New York Sun reported that the Ford Foundation had awarded grants to Palestinian organizations which may, in turn, have funneled some of those funds to terrorist groups in the region.

In response, the Ford Foundation, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, now require all grant recipients to pledge that they will not use funds to support terrorist groups or terrorist activities. Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director, denounced this entirely reasonable requirement as an infringement on his group’s civil liberties, and said that the ACLU would not sign the pledge. As a result, the ACLU was forced to return some $1.1 million in grants from these two foundations.

The extreme positions taken by the ACLU are a sure sign that its directors have lost touch with reality and common sense. As long as the ACLU threatens legitimate religious expression at home and weakens protections against terrorism both at home and abroad, it will sacrifice the good opinion of the American people, and do harm to the legitimate cause of civil liberties.

William E. Simon was the Republican candidate for governor of Californian in 2002. He is co-chairman of William E. Simon and Sons, a private investment firm with offices in Los Angeles, Calif., and Morristown, N.J. He is also co-chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.