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The ACLU and Religion: Don't Believe Everything You Read On the Internet

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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October 13, 2009

A malicious and factually inaccurate e-mail accusing the ACLU of not standing solidly on the side of religious liberty – an e-mail that was first circulated six years ago – has once again reared its ugly head and popped up in the e-mail inboxes of people across the country. In an effort to set the record straight, below are two myths the e-mail passes off as truth, followed by the facts which effectively debunk the e-mail’s claims.

MYTH: The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to have all cross-shaped headstones removed from federal cemeteries.

FACT: The ACLU has never once advocated for or initiated any litigation in favor of removing cross-shaped headstones from federal cemeteries. In fact, as the website makes clear, there are no cross-shaped headstones at VA national cemeteries. The headstones and markers the government issues are rectangular.

What the ACLU did do in 2006 was file a lawsuit seeking to protect the right of veterans and their families to choose religious symbols to engrave on headstones in federal cemeteries. The result of this litigation was not the forced removal of any crosses, but rather an expansion of the official government list of religious symbols allowed on headstones by the National Cemeteries Administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to include the Wiccan pentacle.

There are military cemeteries with rows of crosses in them, but most of those are in Europe, the final resting place of some American troops killed during World War I and World War II. Those cemeteries are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission and, according to, are technically owned by the foreign country in which they are located but sit on land given to the U.S. for use in perpetuity as commemorative cemeteries. further reports that commission officials are not aware of any effort – by the ACLU or anyone else – to remove cross-shaped headstones from those sites.

MYTH: The ACLU filed a lawsuit to end prayer in the military completely.

FACT: The ACLU has filed no such lawsuit. This totally false assertion is likely misrepresenting a letter the ACLU and the ACLU of Maryland sent in June 2008 to officials at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis asking them to stop forcing midshipmen to participate in the Academy’s compulsory “noon meal prayers.” A New York Times article very effectively details why forcing midshipmen to stand in attendance at the daily “noon meal prayer” is a violation of their religious freedom and rights of conscience.

In the letter sent to the Academy, ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah A. Jeon makes clear that the ACLU opposes compulsory religious services mandated by the government, not voluntary religious exercises by Academy midshipmen. As Jeon writes: “[T]his request is not motivated by any hostility to voluntary religious exercises by Academy midshipmen, nor do we fail to recognize the important place religious faith holds among many in the military. Indeed, the ACLU has long defended the fundamental right of religious communities, families and individuals – including those in the armed services – to practice their faith freely and openly.” Let there be no question that the ACLU vigorously defends the right of all Americans to practice religion (PDF).

We at the ACLU sincerely hope that providing you with this factual information regarding the erroneous claims made in the e-mail will not only help you avoid bearing false witness, but, should you desire, also empower you to set the record straight should it find its way to you.

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