All together now: Thank God for the ACLU

I was stuck in a Southern California airport for a few hours the other day and, of course, this meant spending some quality time with a dead-tree-pulp edition of the Los Angeles Times. As you would expect, it contained large doses of post-11/2 "values" news. Some of this was fairly predictable, such as metro columnist Steve Lopez going out of his way to find a Baptist preacher -- I predict from the American Baptist flock in the blue pews -- who was upset about the role of Bible-thumpers in American life and politics. If you know any left-of-center Baptists and/or evangelicals, you might want to tell them to call the switchboard at their local newspaper and the odds are good someone will do a story on them right now. Hey, I've done one or two of those recently myself.

Then there was feature writer Robin Abcarian's "It's a deeper shade of red," which offered a nice look inside the red-state numbers in Indiana. She talked to a wide variety of people whose religious and political views are much more complex than they appear when shoved through the grid of an exit poll. It is still interesting, however, how almost every interview kept pivoting on issues of sexual morality. Let's face it, the 10 Commandments are hot.

But the story that really got me fired up was right out there on page one, in column one -- Scott Gold's report from Las Vegas about the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of some very blunt, non-PC street preachers. This was a reminder that there are times when the ACLU gets quite logical and consistent and defends everybody's right to offend people on public sidewalks (unless those public sidewalks are too close to abortion facilities).

You want quotes and colorful details? Gold's got 'em from the get-go and they lead straight into a thesis paragraph that grabs you:

The way the American Civil Liberties Union sees it, the 1st Amendment was made for nights like this. The organization in recent months has turned a small band of street preachers into unlikely symbols of free speech -- fighting, sometimes in noisy confrontations with police and casinos, for the preachers' right to spread the gospel on the Las Vegas Strip.

The alliance is an awkward one. The preachers openly despise the ACLU, which they view as an insufferably liberal institution, albeit one that had lately seemed like their only friend in town. The ACLU doesn't think much of the preachers' condemnations of, well, a lot of people, including "fornicators," Democrats, women who seek abortions and people who have not accepted Christ as their savior.

And the Las Vegas establishment doesn't think much of the whole issue; evangelical preachers bellowing about "homos," "porno freaks" and the devil don't exactly fit with the anything-goes marketing scheme that has served this city well.

But sidewalks are supposed to be for everyone, so the ACLU has waded into this decade-long fight between preachers, casinos, lawyers, labor leaders, anti-war activists, erotic dance-club staffers and cops. There ought to be a Country & Western song in here somewhere.

Gold also has to cover the local laws and customs, which, since this is sin city, are colorful in and of themselves. When the case hit the courts, it turned out that the bottom line remains the bottom line:

"What the court said, basically, is that if it looks like a sidewalk, smells like a sidewalk and functions like a sidewalk, then by golly it's a public sidewalk," said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU.

And, by golly, free speech is supposed to be free speech, even when somebody is waving a Bible and telling people that they may or may not go to hell and the choice is up to them. That's what happens when someone has a constitutional right to say that he is on a mission from God.

Fire and brimstone are awkward, no doubt about it. Here's the end of the story:

For the most part . . . the Griners were simply ignored. After their lengthy struggle to be there at all, they made clear that they were satisfied with that. And some onlookers were impressed with their fortitude, given the surroundings.

"If you believe in it, you should push it," said Garrett Midkiff, a 24-year-old student visiting from Arizona. "Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to go gamble and drink some more. But I look up to them for doing this. And what better place to do it than the city of sin?"

And all the people said: "Amen." OK, some of the people said: "Amen."

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