***Update***: The ACLU of Mississippi has apologized to the American Humanist Association.
***Update 2***: There are some choice quotations from this whole debacle:
A staff person at the ACLU of Mississippi made an error in judgment in sending an e-mail to the American Humanist Association expressing concerns about accepting its donation and sponsorship offer. To our understanding, MSSC has not made a decision regarding the acceptance of this funding and sponsorship offer. The decision is up to MSSC. The American Humanist Association has been made aware of the error, and the ACLU of Mississippi has expressed its apologies to the association for that error and the sentiments expressed in the e-mail.
The sentiments expressed by the ACLU of Mississippi staff person in the referenced e-mail do not reflect the views of the ACLU of Mississippi or the National ACLU in any way. The ACLU remains a stalwart defender of freedom of belief and expression for all.
“We accept the apology, but we feel that an apology is owed not just to us but to the people of Mississippi,” said David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association. “To suggest that the good people of Mississippi are so unenlightened that they can’t be accepting and welcoming to the goodwill of a humanist group is insulting to them, not just to us. We are confident that our involvement would have been met with warmth and Southern hospitality.”
From donor Todd Stiefel‘s Facebook page:
Hooray! The ACLU apologized to the AHA. They should have also apologized for misleading people into thinking that the AHA was making unreasonable demands. The AHA was not putting conditions on their donation, it was the ACLU that was putting a condition on accepting it. ACLU would only accept it if they could hide who the money came from, which would mean AHA would have to hide the gift from their members.
They should also apologize to the people of Mississippi and Southern Baptists for insinuating they are intolerant bigots.
The best news is that it looks like Constance and her school will get an amazing “Second Chance Prom.” Hopefully, the AHA will be one of the sponsors.
From the Secular Coalition for America:
The Secular Coalition for America has repeatedly lobbied the Obama administration for safe schools legislation that includes gay students as well as nonbelieving students. The behavior of this local school underscores the clear need for schools that are safe and welcoming environments for gay students and nonbelievers as well. More broadly, the notion that a civil liberties organization would themselves ‘tremble’ to associate with a positive, humanitarian group like the AHA, simply because they are nonbelievers, makes clear the necessity of the work of the Secular Coalition for America as it advocates for federal law that increases the visibility and respect of the nonreligious in American society.
From the ACLU of Louisiana (in an email written to members of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association (NOSHA)):
Harry, Charlotte, and the rest of NOSHA: I’m just reading the story in today’s NY Times about the ACLU of Mississippi having rejected money from the American Humanist Association for a prom for Constance McMillen. I’m shocked, embarrassed, and appalled that any ACLU entity would turn down such a generous offer from good friends to help a client with a worthy cause. This is not a reflection of the entire ACLU, certainly not the ACLU of Louisiana, and I want to assure you that we do not shy away from the word or the concept of “atheism,” or from our friends who support us in our work.
Please accept this as an apology on behalf of the ACLU of Louisiana for the actions of the ACLU of Mississippi, over which we have no control.
Remember the Mississippi high school that canceled prom because one of the students, Constance McMillen, wanted to attend with her girlfriend (and wear a tux)?
Remember how atheist Todd Stiefel donated $20,000 to the American Humanist Association so that they could help hold an alternative prom that would be inclusive of GLBT students?
Well, the ACLU is helping with the alternative prom, and they have a message for Stiefel and the AHA:
We don’t want your money.
You’ll never believe why:
“Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word ‘atheist,’” Jennifer Carr, the fund-raiser for the A.C.L.U of Mississippi, wrote in an e-mail message to Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the humanist group.
Regarding the A.C.L.U. move, Ms. Carr wrote to Mr. Speckhardt: “Our staff has been talking a lot about your donation offer and have found ourselves in a bit of a conflict. We have fears that your organization sponsoring the prom could stir up even more controversy.”
Mr. Speckhardt said he was “really shocked” to hear the gift had been rejected. “We’ve worked with the A.C.L.U. many times in the past,” he said, “so this really felt like a slap in the face to me.”
“You’d think they would have learned a lesson from the very case they’ve been working on,” [Stiefel] said. “The school board was trying to avoid a controversy by silencing a controversial minority, and now the A.C.L.U. is making the same mistake.”
The Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition (MSSC) is organizing the alternative prom and they don’t know why the ACLU is acting this way. They could certainly use the donation.
According to Matthew Sheffield, a spokesman for the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, the organization arranging the event, the A.C.L.U. of Mississippi did not have authority to decline the gift.
“We asked someone at the A.C.L.U. to assist us in handling all the donations, and that person told them we were not interested and that is not true,” he said.
First of all, why is the ACLU shying away from atheists and the word “atheist”? The ACLU, of all groups, ought to be on our side in making that term acceptable. There’s no reason to reject it on account of potential controversy. Of all the controversial issues here, that atheists want to help the situation is not the biggest one.
Secondly, there are a lot of distractions in this whole story, but ultimately, I hope Constance gets to attend prom. A prom. Her school’s being ridiculous and that’s just sad. But I held the ACLU in far higher regard. They’ve really let me down with this one.
I give money to the national ACLU. I don’t want to have to think twice before renewing my membership next time. What the Mississippi ACLU is doing may turn some progressives away from being members.
It’s not too late to rectify the mistake, though. The ACLU could accept Todd’s donation on behalf of MSSC and throw in some of their own money as a way to make amends. I’m sure everyone would appreciate that — especially the kids brave enough to attend the alternative prom.
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