ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight wrote this column appearing March 1, 2015 at The American Thinker website.
Calaveras County became famous 150 years ago when Mark Twain in 1865 penned the short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which also became the title of Twain’s very first book.
Now, thanks to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, the county of 45,000 people situated in northern California’s gold country may become famous for something else — officials bucking the ACLU and standing for religious freedom in the public square.
The ACLU of Northern California first jumped into action last year upon hearing that, on April 8, 2014, the county board of supervisors passed a resolution honoring the work of the Door of Hope, a Christian-operated pregnancy center.
Several local residents complained to the ACLU, which, like frogs hopping out of a hot pot, sprang into action. The county got a warning letter on May 15, 2014.
This is the same ACLU chapter, by the way, that nearly 20 years ago forced the Livingston, Calif. school district to allow Sikh students to wear ceremonial knives (secured in sewn sheaths) in school. They’re still boasting about it on the ACLU website.
The biggest objection in the current case was to this section: “The Door of Hope seeks to enlighten and strengthen the lives of women and young women in Calaveras County by inviting them to test and see for themselves the many blessings that can come from living the teachings of Christ.”
Yes, that’s what they do, the center director told county officials at a hearing.
The ACLU letter advised officials to rescind the resolution on the grounds that it violated California’s Constitution. On May 28, the county attorney responded by stating that the resolution was not illegal as written, but advising the board to redraft it.
On July 8, the board adopted a slightly reworded version, changing the apparently offensive word “unborn” in another section to “children” but leaving the reference to “living the teachings of Christ.”
Last week, on Feb. 18, the ACLU formally filed a lawsuit (Lavagetto, et al. v. County of Calaveras) in Superior Court on behalf of nine residents of varying non-Christian religions or no religion, alleging several violations of the California and U.S. Constitutions.
One plaintiff alleged that the resolution, “discourages broad-based participation in local government.” A Unitarian plaintiff argued that unless the court strikes down the resolution, “officials will continue to impose limits on the religious freedom of those who do not share their religious belief.” Another Unitarian said she “fears… it will create divisions in her community and foster an environment of intolerance.”
None of the plaintiffs offered any tangible example of how they would lose the ability to practice their own religion freely or participate in public life. Apparently, the mere mention of someone benefiting from “living the teachings of Christ” is enough to give adherents of other worldviews an inferiority complex, or worse. As President Obama has noted, we are just barely over the Inquisition.
The real problem is California’s Constitution, which goes beyond federal law to enshrine the idea that anything “religious” has cooties. Article 16, Section 5 states:
“Neither the Legislature, nor any county, city and county, township, school district, or other municipal corporation, shall ever make an appropriation, or pay from any public fund whatever, or grant anything to or in aid of any religious sect, church, creed, or sectarian purpose, or help to support or sustain any school, college, university, hospital, or other institution controlled by any religious creed, church, or sectarian denomination whatever; nor shall any grant or donation of personal property or real estate ever be made by the State, or any city, city and county, town, or other municipal corporation for any religious creed, church, or sectarian purpose whatever….”
Part of the ACLU’s suit accuses Calaveras County officials of spending “public funds” by “enacting” and “maintaining records” of the resolution. While that might not break the county coffers, it remains to be seen whether the defendants will have to pay the ACLU’s usual exorbitant legal fees if the county loses the case.
The conservative Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) has offered a pro bono defense of the county. PJI President Brad Dacus told OneNewsNow that local governments are free to recognize all charities, including religious ones, “and yet the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, they continue to file these lawsuits; they continually lose. That’s the critical lesson to be learned when they engage in these bullying tactics to try to sterilize faith and people of faith and organizations of faith from the marketplace.
“We need to send a loud message to bullies like the ACLU… that they cannot file these actions and expect to prevail or expect local governments to be intimidated — not anymore.”