The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia is a private, non-profit organization that promotes civil liberties and civil rights for everyone in the Commonwealth through public education, litigation and advocacy with the goal of securing freedom and equality for all. The ACLU is non-partisan and does not engage in electioneering on behalf of any candidate or candidates at the local, state, or national level.
In addition to the litigation for which the ACLU has been best known, we also educate the public, inform the media, lobby legislators, organize grassroots activists, and disseminate information about our constitutional freedoms through our membership and volunteers.
The ACLU Organization in Virginia
There are two separate ACLU entities in Virginia:
- The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Inc. is a tax-exempt, non-profit advocacy organization to which membership dues are paid. Dues paying members who reside in Virginia are automatically members of both the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the national American Civil Liberties Union. Membership dues and other contributions to either the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Inc. or the national American Civil Liberties Union are not tax-deductible.
- The ACLU Foundation of Virginia is a tax-exempt, non-profit charity that provides legal assistance and conducts educational programs and activities. Donations to either the ACLU Foundation of Virginia or the national ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible.
For a further explanation of the differences between the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation, click here.
With few exceptions, donations made either to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Inc. or the ACLU Foundation of Virginia are shared with the corresponding national ACLU entity, and vice versa.
As of September 1, 2017, there are more than 1.5 million ACLU members nationwide with more than 41,000 of them living in Virginia.
History: The ACLU beginnings in Virginia...
Although the national ACLU was founded in 1920, there was no ACLU presence in Virginia until the mid-1960s. At that time, Virginia was actively resisting racial integration of public schools, had effectively blocked racial minorities from participation in politics, and had longstanding laws against interracial marriage. The University of Virginia still did not admit women, a college student was about to receive a 20-year jail sentence for possessing an ounce of marijuana, and many public schools began the day with teacher-led prayers. To make matters worse, the infamous Byrd Machine still controlled Virginia politics with an iron fist, rendering change from inside the system a difficult, if not impossible, task.
A small group of dedicated activists, most of whom lived in Charlottesville and Alexandria, decided that a strong, independent presence was needed in Virginia to protect individual liberties, advance civil rights and generally help bring the state into the modern era. The ACLU, with its reputation for aggressively promoting constitutional rights, often in the face of great resistance and against popular sentiment, seemed to be the kind of organization that could have the greatest impact in Virginia.
Among the very first cases sponsored by the young ACLU in Virginia was one that rocked the foundations of Virginia’s segregationist past. Loving v. Virginia ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court and is still counted by the national ACLU as one of the most important lawsuits in the organization’s long, storied history. This case challenged the constitutionality of the Virginia statute banning interracial marriages. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Virginia and other southern states were forced to repeal their antiquated anti-miscegenation statutes.
The commitment, talent, and tenacity that led to the Loving case continue to serve the ACLU in Virginia to this day.
Fifty years promoting essential rights and liberties in Virginia…
In the ensuing years, the ACLU of Virginia has continued to protect and advance the constitutional rights of Virginia citizens through a wide variety of lawsuits and public education programs. We defended the right of lesbian Sharon Bottoms to keep custody of her child and brought the first and only class action lawsuit seeking to achieve marriage equality for same-sex couples. One of the Loving case lawyers brought the legal case that required UVA to admit women, and we were part of the team that forced VMI to admit women. We successfully challenged racially discriminatory election plans in two dozen municipalities across the state. These cases have been at the forefront of advancing equal rights for women and minorities in Virginia.
In addition, we have led the effort to guard religious liberty in Virginia with dozens of successful lawsuits and other advocacy that has resulted in positive change without litigation. Our lawsuit challenging student-led, but school-organized, prayer at high school graduations was the first of its kind in the nation. Our case defending the right of churches to feed the homeless in Richmond sent a message to local governments not to interfere with religious practices. More recently, we sued to prohibit discrimination against Sikh congregations that wanted to conduct Virginia recognized marriages, and participated in a challenge to a local permitting decision that discriminated against those seeking to build a new mosque.
Throughout all of this, the ACLU of Virginia has been virtually alone in our battle to protect the cherished but constantly jeopardized right of freedom of expression in the state. Whether it is the right to protest, to read a banned book, or to have uncensored access to the Internet, the ACLU of Virginia has taken on the state, local governments, schools, libraries and other public entities attempting to unreasonably restrict free expression and inquiry.
The ACLU has filed more than 300 lawsuits in Virginia over the last 50 years, and with each successful case we have advanced the cause for freedom and equality. Because these cases required financial resources and legal expertise not available to the average citizen, it is safe to say that only a handful would have made it to the courtroom without the ACLU’s assistance. In addition, hundreds of other threats to civil liberties have been resolved with the mere threat of litigation by the ACLU or through our public education efforts.
As a complement to our litigation program, the ACLU of Virginia lobbies the Virginia General Assembly and provides educational programs on civil liberties and civil rights. Over the years, we have protected the constitutional rights of Virginians residents by altering the course of hundreds of bills in the state legislature. Through presentations, distribution of literature, and frequent comments in the media, we have educated countless Virginians about their constitutional rights.