The ACLU gets villified a lot by Conservatives and the Religious Right for their efforts to maintain the separation of Church and State and are often wrongly accused of trying to “remove all religious expression from the public square,” whatever that means. The truth is that the ACLU often is on the other side of the fence and defends an individual’s right to religious expression when it is infringed, but this fact is commonly ignored by those folks upset with the ACLU as a whole.
One such case occurred in Utica, Michigan with a student who found her year book message censored because it was religious in nature. The ACLU stepped in to take up the case on the student’s behalf.
The separation of church and state is an “important principle,” but “there’s also an important principle that the government shall not impede personal (expressions of) religion,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “What makes this case interesting is we are talking about the personal religious expression of one student.”
Abbey Moler, Stevenson’s 2001 valedictorian, was profiled in the yearbook along with other students, and invited to write an entry to pass along to the rest of the school. Moler submitted a Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11, which reads: “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
“My personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the foundation of who I am, and the publication of my verse is critical in preserving student expression and First Amendment rights,” Moler said.
But when the yearbook was published, Moler’s message wasn’t included.
“I was shocked, and it’s still upsetting to me,” Moler said.
She and her parents complained and were told the passage was removed because it was religious. The family researched legal options and contacted the ACLU in early 2002.
The ACLU took up the issue on Moler’s behalf, and after about two years, negotiated a settlement with school district officials without going to trial.
“This was a case where a high school had created a forum for student expression, yet censored a student’s speech because it was religious in nature,” said Michael Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director.
With as often as the ACLU is protrayed as being anti-religious and out to prohibit all public displays of religion it’s important that the reality of the situation is made clear. Their goal is to ensure that the government lives up to the rules in the Constitution and are applied to all citizens fairly. They are just as willing to stand with believers as against them as the situation dictates.