By Pat Henkel
This year a man in Virginia sent Christmas cards to nearly a dozen members of the Board and staff of the ACLU of Virginia. Although the cards were all the same, each contained a different hand-written message.
In his card to me he wrote, "Pat, in spite of ACLU, Jesus Loves You." Well, I know that Jesus loves me, because I am a life-long, deeply committed Christian of the Lutheran tradition.
The writer appears to have made two common mistaken assumptions. The first is that there is only one way to think as a Christian. The second is that the ACLU is somehow opposed to Christianity or religion in general.
All Christians are not of one mind on almost any topic you can name. We have differences in some matters of faith, and we certainly do not agree on matters of state.
Christians can be found in both political parties and on both sides of current contentious issues ranging from abortion, LGBT rights and the nature of marriage, immigration and undocumented workers, capital punishment, and the right to go to war, to issues such as the age of the world, or even whether to greet people during December with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”
This range of opinions may well be true of all religions, but I am most familiar with members of my faith. Much as I believe I am right in my opinions and can’t believe other people of the Christian faith can think anything else is true and right, I have to recognize that I cannot judge the faith of others or the political opinions they hold based on their faith.
My work with the ACLU actually arises from my faith. I feel that my allegiance to God is only meaningful if it is freely given. If I am compelled by government to pray, those prayers are not, in my mind, as meaningful. The Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, is crucial here to ensure free expression of religion and to prevent the government from requiring me to participate in a particular religious ceremony.
As for the ACLU somehow being against religion, I can say, unequivocally, that is not the case. Having served 18 years on the Board of Directors of the ACLU of Virginia, I have witnessed first hand how the ACLU vigorously defends the right of individuals to practice the religion of their choice, free from government interference, whether they be Christians, Jews, Muslims or any other faith.
In recent years, for example, the ACLU in Virginia has assisted:

- Christians who were prevented by government from holding baptisms in a public park.

-A Jehovah’s Witness who was forced by a government employer to sign a loyalty oath in violation of her religious beliefs.

- The right of a student to bring a Bible to a public school.

- Christians who were prevented from receiving religious material while in jail.

-Muslims and people of other faiths who were prevented by the government from following the tenets of their faith regarding personal appearance.

- The ACLU of Virginia even joined Rev. Jerry Falwell in a lawsuit challenging an old Virginia law that restricted the amount of property churches could own.

Our nation’s 200 year experiment with freedom of religion -- which both protects each individual’s right to choose what religion he or she will practice and prevents the government from imposing religion on individuals -- has worked beyond all expectations. We are, without question, the most religiously free nation in the history of the world. Research also indicates that the people of the United States are more religious than any of the other western democracies, most of which have official or unofficial state religions.
The genius of the Founding Fathers in establishing the Bill of Rights was to recognize that government and religion are each better off when they are prevented from interfering with each other. In the ACLU there are many people of many different faiths, as well as many people of decidedly no faith. It is one of the strengths of our organization -- and our nation.
Pat Henkel lives in Reston. She served on the Board of Directors of the ACLU of Virginia for 18 years between 1983 and 2010 in a variety of leadership roles, including chairing several committees and as Vice-President.