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SLO loses an important watchdog 

Local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union closes its doors

With the War on Terror and the Patriot Act raising concerns about the erosion of civil liberties, now could be a relatively inopportune time for satellite chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to start closing their doors. But that's exactly what the SLO chapter informally announced last week it would be doing. One member of the ACLU-SLO said recently that attendance at the meetings had fallen off and that the forums were sparsely attended.

Perhaps more troubling still is how quietly the SLO chapter seems to be dissolving. The ACLU Southern California, ACLU-SLO's parent chapter, was founded by Upton Sinclair in 1923 to protect rights granted under the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

In recent years, the ACLU-SLO has held forums and discussions on various civil issues and been the eyes and ears for its parent organization, ACLU-SC. Last week the group held a discussion on transgender discrimination. Christopher Daley, director of the Transgender Law Center of San Francisco, was the featured speaker.

In 2001 New Times profiled Hank Alberts, then-president of ACLU-SLO.

"People brag about their constitutional rights all the time," Alberts said. "But they rarely thank - or think about - the people who protect them. The ACLU is not motivated by what's fashionable. We're here to protect the Bill of Rights. That's our only client."

In honor of the group's historical dedication to civil checks and balances, New Times opened up the archives and found some of the more newsworthy issues taken on in recent years by the ACLU-SLO.

 

The separation of church and state

In 1999, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the SLO County Board of Supervisors, arguing that a gift of $2,500 to Mission College Catholic Preparatory High School from the Board violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which, according to an ACLU press release, "prohibit[s] government funding of sectarian schools and institutions."

Then-ACLU-SLO Chapter President Hank Alberts addressed the Board of Supervisors in a letter and in a public comment period. He stated that the ACLU objected to the allocation of funds to Mission Prep and that the grant was unconstitutional. The Board heard his comments and still voted to approve the grant 3-0.

Ramona Ripston, then ACLU–SC executive director, said, "The ACLU has long believed that we must keep clear the lines between church and state. Making this kind of gift of public funds directly to a sectarian institution should cause great concern to all who believe in the keeping of the government out of the business of endorsing religious institutions."

According to the ACLU press release, the Board of Supervisors settled the lawsuit by withdrawing the grant to Mission Prep and reimbursing the ACLU for its costs and lawyer fees in bringing the suit.

 

Mardi Gras and the right to party

The ACLU wants you to revel during Mardi Gras.

In 2002, when the city of San Luis Obispo denied Mardi Gras organizers a parade permit, the ACLU filed a lawsuit.

"I was the one who denied the parade permit because I could honestly attest to the safety of the event," said Ken Hampian, SLO city administrative officer. "That action was taken to court and the court ruled in favor of the ACLU."

According to Hampian, the court said citizens should be allowed to hold a parade as a freedom of expression. The city chose not to appeal, but it was too late for the parade organizers to organize an event. The following year SLO celebrated Mardi Gras and the year after that there were the now-infamous Mardi Gras riots, which essentially ended Mardi Gras in SLO.

"In recent years, Mardi Gras was the most visible issue, publicly, the ACLU was involved in, in relation to the city," said Hampian.

 

Boy Scout blunder?

In 2001 the ACLU-SLO and ACLU-SC wrote letters to SLO County and the city of Atascadero challenging a rental agreement that the Boy Scouts of America held for Camp French.

The ACLU wrote the letters months after the executive director of the Los Padres Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the council that includes San Luis Obispo, was fired after he announced he was gay. The year before, The Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts were allowed to ban gays and atheists from the organization.

SLO County allowed the Boy Scouts to use the facility rent-free, and defended its position by saying the Boy Scouts upgraded the facility in exchange for rent.

"Our letters ask the county and the city of Atascadero to stop subsidizing discrimination by giving rent-free leases to the Boy Scouts," said Martha Matthews, then staff attorney at ACLU-SC. "As the Los Padres Council's recent firing of Leonard Lanzi shows, the Boy Scouts of America has abandoned the values it used to stand for - honesty, fairness, and respect for diversity - in favor of bias and exclusion."

The issue was eventually dropped, though, according to David Tate, executive director of the Los Padres Council, because the county would have had to reimburse the Boy Scouts for the improvements they had made to the camp. "They [the ACLU] were looking for something a little more splashy," said Tate.

Vocal remembrance

Most recently, the ACLU, on behalf of Michael Tocher of Nipomo, filed a claim against the city of Santa Barbara for damages when he was arrested on Veterans Day. Tocher and his brother were reading the names of those killed in Iraq, through a bullhorn, when police made them stop and detained Tocher.

"It would be easy for me to walk away and not do anything," Tocher told New Times in May. "The fact that I was arrested seemed strange and I thought my rights were violated."

It is not uncommon for local ACLU chapters to dissolve and then re-organize, said Liz , associate director of ACLU-SC. So there is the possibility that ACLU-SLO could be reestablished sometime in the future.

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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