LONG BEACH — The American Civil Liberties Union--an organization described by one local Christian activist as a "cancer" to the American way of life--has announced plans to form a Long Beach chapter to do battle with what members perceive as a dangerous growth of right-wing fundamentalism in the area.
"There are many threats to civil liberties in Long Beach," said Henry Giler, a local attorney who served as president of an earlier Long Beach ACLU chapter that has been defunct since 1982. "Our main goal will be to contest this drive of the fundamentalist rightists which no one has really been taking the lead in opposing."
Said Craig Garbe, spokesman for the Long Beach Coalition for Traditional Values (which he described as a "conservative" and "evangelical" group): "The ACLU is a perversion of what our founding fathers set up this government to be. It is an undermining force against decency, morality, the church, the family and anything that stands for true liberty."
The conflict between the two views--which had been simmering for years--grew to a boiling point in Long Beach over the summer when a coalition of conservative and religious groups, including Garbe's, vocally opposed before the City Council a proposed gay pride celebration at Shoreline Aquatic Park.
On Tuesday the Council voted to ban events serving alcohol or charging a fee at the park during summer months, a move that could jeopardize future gay pride festivals.
City Hit With Suit
Although this year's celebration was eventually allowed to go on, one outcome was an ACLU-backed lawsuit--still pending--accusing the city of discriminating against the festival's organizers by requiring exorbitant fees and an unduly expensive insurance policy.
In fact, it was that lawsuit and several other ACLU actions originating in Long Beach that first brought the city to the attention of regional ACLU organizers as potentially fertile ground for a new chapter of the 24,000-member national organization they say is dedicated to the legal preservation of Constitutional rights.
"In looking over the docket, I saw a number of cases that shouldn't have had to be filed," said Jessica Fiske, the Los Angeles-based director of 18 chapters in the organization's Southern California region from Bakersfield to San Diego. "It seemed obvious that people needed to be educated."
Fiske pointed to other Long Beach-based cases filed by the ACLU:
- Mednick vs. Long Beach Unified School District, in which a Poly High School teacher successfully challenged the district's termination of a course she had been teaching on male and female roles in literature and the media.
- An action in which several former Cal State Long Beach faculty members claim they were fired from the Women's Studies Program as a result of sex discrimination following a controversy in which conservatives accused the university of promoting lesbianism. The case is still pending.
- And a suit, also pending, charging Long Beach City College with sex discrimination in its distribution of resources between the men's and women's athletic programs.
In a city apparently teeming with unresolved civil liberties issues, Fiske said, it struck her as unusual that there was no active chapter to keep abreast of local developments. That impression was deepened, she said, in recent months when she received an unusually high number of inquiries from Long Beach residents regarding ACLU activities.
At-Large Members Alerted
So she sent notices to the estimated 650 at-large ACLU members in the Long Beach area announcing a meeting. And Monday night nearly 40 of them--many intent on forming their own chapter--showed up.
"I'm interested in the ACLU and it would be nice not to have to drive to Los Angeles," said Kevin Dodd, a technician and union steward at Hughes Aircraft Co.
Added David Newell, a math lecturer at CSULB and member of the gay-oriented Lambda Democratic Club: "These cases strongly affect many of our minority communities. There will be many more civil liberties cases in the future and it's important to have an ACLU chapter here to represent us."
According to Giler, the earlier Long Beach chapter--which had existed for many years--became inactive three years ago due to a general lack of leadership and direction. "There's always been a lot of good, solid people here, but not a lot of people who wanted to be active," Giler said. Recent events in Long Beach, however, may have changed all that. "It took someone to stir up the embers," he said.
By meeting's end, according to Fiske, 16 local residents had filled out questionnaires pledging active participation in making the ACLU "a vital presence in Long Beach."
"I'm very encouraged," she said, adding that she planned to meet with the group again within four weeks to formulate specific goals and to begin formally incorporating the new Long Beach chapter.