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Founded by Roger Baldwin and others in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU is a non-profit organization which provides legal assistance and other support for individuals facing government censorship, unlawful prosecution, violation of First Amendment rights and other infringements on individual civil liberties. The infamous Scopes monkey trial, which pitted creationism against the theory of evolution, could be traced back to the efforts of the fledgling ACLU, for example. The actions of the ACLU have shaped the course of American law since its inception, and that is why many people and organization regard it as highly controversial.
One reason the ACLU is considered controversial is the nature of the cases and causes it takes on. If a city sanctions the display of a Nativity scene on public property, for example, the ACLU often seeks a legal injunction to have it removed or modified. The legal basis for such action is the right of non-religious citizens not to view religious symbols in what should be neutral territory, but many people view this as a controversial division between church and state. While the religious display may not be patently offensive to most of the city's residents, the ACLU seeks to protect the civil liberties of others who may be offended.
Sometimes the ACLU provides legal aid and other support to individuals or groups whose general beliefs run counter to the mainstream. ACLU lawyers have represented the Ku Klux Klan, the anti-homosexual Westboro Baptist Church, and the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), among other fringe or controversial organizations. Although the ACLU does not necessarily endorse the stated goals or mission statements of these organizations, it does feel compelled to defend their right to protest the government or distribute their literature.
Because the majority of the funding for the ACLU comes from the left or liberal side of the political spectrum, membership in the ACLU is often presented as a negative by those on the political right. Democratic presidential Michael Dukakis was attacked by Republican nominee George H.W. Bush during the 1988 election campaign for his acknowledged membership in the ACLU.
The ACLU is often characterized as an ultra-liberal organization disconnected from the views and morality of the general public, although the ACLU has historically challenged both liberal and conservative positions. While the ACLU has defended the rights of pornographers to produce obscene materials or forced the removal of religious symbols from public buildings, it has also played a major role in civil rights legislation and legal protection for the elderly, the disabled, military veterans and others who have had to face government intrusions or denials of service.