Liberties, or Rights?

Article excerpt

Conservatives have formed a new activist group, the American Civil Rights Union, `to look out for all civil rights ... rather than a defense of those based on a liberal political bias.'

Former Attorney Gen. Edwin Meese III, Judge Robert Bork and other prominent conservatives have formed the American Civil Rights Union, or ACRU, as a right-wing counterpart to the American Civil Liberties Union. "We want to do what the ACLU claims to do but doesn't always do," says Robert B. Carleson, chairman of the new organization.

Carleson, a policy adviser in the first Reagan administration and now a management consultant in San Diego, does not see his new organization as the "antithesis or the enemy" of the ACLU. In fact, the ACLU "does things right in some cases," he says, "but in other cases it not only does not defend the Bill of Rights, it opposes it."

Carleson criticizes the ACLU for its support of efforts he says prohibit the free exercise of religion, infringe the right to bear arms and violate double-jeopardy protections by permitting state and federal trials for the same crime. He castigates the liberal group for its efforts to define the death penalty as "cruel and unusual punishment," even though the death penalty was common when the Bill of Rights was adopted. And he claims its support of preferences and set-asides based on race, gender or other group characteristics deny "to others the equal protection of the law."

But Emily Whitfield, national ACLU spokeswoman, believes her organization has a "clear reputation of being nonpartisan." She points out that the ACLU recently filed a case on behalf of the Christian Coalition and "defended Oliver North's Fifth Amendment right not to testify in the Iran-Contra hearings."

The ACLU has criticized President Clinton when he has taken positions it thought were illiberal. The group slammed Clinton for supporting teen curfews and for signing the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 that denies recognition of same-sex "marriages," arguing that such positions were cynical efforts to please voters at the expense of civil liberties.

The ACLU, founded in 1920, has aroused political passions throughout its history. It fiercely opposed the 1987 nomination of Bork to the Supreme Court; because of a divided board of directors, the group fell one vote short of opposing the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the high court. During the 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush attacked his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, for being a "card-carrying member" of the ACLU, whose positions he said were "far left."

"For too long, the civil-rights establishment has insisted that equal opportunity has required racial preferences, but a new breed of civil-rights groups has risen up to challenge this notion," says Linda Chavez, a member of the ACRU's policy board. …