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Tea partyers ought to consider the ACLU

Both groups appear to share a fervent attachment to the Constitution.

By Leonard Boasberg

I hear the protesters at tea-party rallies crying out, "We want our country back!" and I'd like to ask them, "Back from whom?"

Back from the 66.9 million of your fellow Americans - 53 percent of the electorate - who voted for Barack Obama? Those who gave substantial majorities to the Democrats in the House and Senate?

I see tea partyers carrying signs saying "Protect our Constitution." I'm all for protecting our Constitution. Need I remind the demonstrators that the 2008 election of the president and Congress was conducted according to the procedures laid out in the Constitution in 1789? The American people have accepted the results of such elections - however controversial - every time except once, in 1860, when the South seceded over slavery.

Where were the tea-party protesters when the National Security Agency, under President George W. Bush, was flouting the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution with warrantless surveillance of American citizens? Where were they when Bush was authorizing the torture of people held in secret sites abroad?

Then-Vice President Dick Cheney propounded a "unitary executive theory," which basically held that the president could do anything he wished, regardless of the laws passed by Congress and the rulings of the Supreme Court. Where do the tea partyers find that in the Constitution?

If the tea-party types really want to protect the Constitution, I suggest they join the American Civil Liberties Union. It's been opposing abuses of government power and defending our constitutional rights and liberties in courts, communities, and legislative bodies for 90 years.

The ACLU protects the tea-party protesters' freedom to assemble outside Congress and shout imprecations and insults at members of Congress. It protects their right to carry signs showing Obama with a Hitler mustache, calling him a liar and a "commie," and there's nothing he can do about it.

The ACLU will defend the right of the adherents of a cause, however unpopular, to speak their speech - even hate speech. Thirty years ago, it went to court to support the right of American neo-Nazis to march through the streets of Skokie, Ill. The ACLU lost many of its own supporters for that, but it stuck by its principles.

The Obama administration is not going to use the census to throw people in concentration camps, as Minnesota Republican and tea-party darling Michele Bachman has asserted. But if it or any successor tried to, the ACLU would be in the vanguard of the opposition.

It was the ACLU that led the fight against the World War II internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. It fought for 45 years for their right to redress, until Congress finally passed the Civil Liberties Act, granting them reparations, in 1988.

Sarah Palin has vowed "we'll keep clinging" to our religion, and yes, we can. The ACLU has fought vigorously to protect our rights under the First Amendment, which declares: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The ACLU opposes those who would force or pressure children to pray in public schools, but it also upholds children's right to express their religious beliefs in school. In two recent cases - one in New Jersey, the other in New York - the ACLU filed friend-of-the-court briefs upholding elementary school students' right to sing the song "Awesome God" in voluntary after-school talent shows.

By the way, some of the tea partyers carrying around copies of the Constitution seem to believe this is a Christian nation. They would do well to read the Constitution if they haven't before; you won't find the word Christian therein.

The ACLU is controversial. Sometimes people - even its own members - fiercely disagree with its positions. Some who call themselves conservatives attack it as an extreme left-wing organization. But since when is it extreme or left-wing to protect the Constitution?