Vic Walczak,
ACLU of Pennsylvania
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November 26, 2008

When people toss out the accusation that the ACLU is anti-religious or, specifically, anti-Christian, I react somewhere between being bemused and annoyed, depending on the day’s stress level. Bemused because they’d flunk Constitutional Law 101; and annoyed because it’s so not true. If it were, why do we regularly help Christians when the government intrudes on their activities? You can read more about some of these cases at /defendingreligion.

As the ACLU’s Legal Director for Pennsylvania, I’ve been responsible for many cases helping religious believers exercise their constitutional rights. Last week the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of the “Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach,” a ministry of the First Apostles’ Doctrine Church in Brookville, Pennsylvania, which was founded a few years ago to bring shelter and Jesus Christ to homeless people in this rural area, about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The ministry aids pretty much anyone in need. When I last visited, the group included disabled military veterans, teenagers forced from their homes, senior citizens who couldn’t afford their personal care homes, recently released low-level offenders, people referred by county mental health agencies, and people evicted from their homes and apartments.

Exterior of the Just for Jesus church.

This past summer Brookville shut down the ministry, falsely charging that the ministry had violated local zoning codes. Then on September 4, Brookville zoning officials and police officers, thinking they would catch people sleeping in the church, forced their way inside by climbing through a window, without a warrant or consent. The minister sought help from “Christian” public-interest groups, but was turned down. As so often happens in these situations, when rights are violated and no one else will help, the ACLU rides to the rescue.

Sort of like the Just for Jesus ministry, the ACLU helps pretty much anyone — why else do you think we do cases for the KKK, sex offenders, death row inmates and anyone who may not be popular with other Americans. Believe me, it’s not because we necessarily agree with their messages or beliefs. As I tell my new student interns every semester, screening complaints is easy. The ACLU doesn’t care what the person looks like, i.e., race, gender, ethnicity, disability, etc., how much money they have, for whom they vote, whom they love, or to whom they pray. The only thing that matters is whether the person’s rights are being violated. There is no big sign in the office saying “Only ____ need apply.”

Just for Jesus’s clothes drive for the homeless in Pittsburgh.

The Pennsylvania ACLU handles — and always has handled — lots of religious-liberty cases. The cases that attract people’s attention are the ones where we challenge government sponsorship of religion — freedom from government-promoted religion. We’re well-known for the school prayer case in the 60’s (Abington v. Schempp), the courthouse crèche case in the late 80’s (Allegheny County v. ACLU), and the Dover Intelligent Design case in this decade (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District). There’s a whole lot more. People who understand the First Amendment’s twin pillars of protection for religious liberty — freedom from government-promoted religion and freedom of religion to be free from governmental restraints — know that preventing government from sponsoring or promoting religion actually enhances religious liberty.

But we do an almost equal number of cases on behalf of religious people or groups fighting against government interference — the freedom of religion stuff. And we do a lot of cases for Christians, especially considering there are so many public-interest groups that do cases only for Christians (think of the ACLJ, Alliance Defense Fund, Christian Legal Society, Thomas More Law Center, etc.). While those groups favor only these cases, ACLU still represents Christians and everyone else, and we are always happy to help.

The case for the Just for Jesus homeless ministry is part of a steady flow of cases we handle for churches and Christians. In the past 18 months, we went to court to reopen a soup kitchen in a McKeesport Church and a shelter for mental-health court referrals and homeless at Cleft of the Rock Church in Munhall. We negotiated a variance to allow a predominantly African-American church to open in Turtle Creek. We helped the Warren County Amish with government utilities regulations, and helped non-denominational Christians get self-uniting marriage licenses that Allegheny County had restricted to Bahai’s and Quakers. And we successfully defended a Pennsylvania branch of Pax Christi from a defamation suit over an important report they issued on lousy medical care at the Lackawanna County (Scranton) Prison. These freedom-of-religion cases are a regular part of our docket, but as with the most recent case, our one-sided attackers — for reasons only their conscience knows — ignore them.

Interior of the Just for Jesus church during the Sunday Prayer Service.

Within two days of filing suit for the “Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach,” we got a court order allowing our Christian clients to resume operations. This was a particularly gratifying win. The Reverend Jack Wisor, the church’s founder and bishop, is serving a huge and, unfortunately, growing need. Sitting in his small church two weeks ago, listening to him preach the gospel to the guests, hearing their mostly sad stories about how life had taken a nasty turn and how the church was helping them regain their bearing, I was impressed and inspired. Glad we could help. All part of the ACLU’s rights-defending mission. Rights of everyone, that is. No exceptions.

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