A quarter-century ago, Dan Donnelly, a friend and fellow plaintiff in an unsuccessful challenge of a religious holiday display on public property in Pawtucket, wondered who could possibly lead the local chapter of the ACLU in constitutionally challenged Rhode Island.
Donnelly and the rest of us on the search committee for a new executive director shared many interesting moments along the way. One applicant felt, for example, that mounting a court case might be contrary to their own religious beliefs. For an organization largely based on court challenges (often to protect religious freedom) this rocked even the ACLU's core.
We plowed ahead, hoping for a miracle.
We got one: a young man from Pennsylvania who presented himself with a self-assured yet relaxed way and impressed the committee with his knowledge and his winning style.
The search committee agreed that the calm-but-firm way that Steve Brown presented his case was needed in a state with a legislature (to say nothing of city and town governments) determined to pass laws and ordinances that flew in the face of both federal and state constitution mandates.
Fortunately for Rhode Island's ACLU, and for the citizens of this state as a whole, Brown took the job. Years later, he remains a respected fixture in the State House, in the local media, and in the hearts of those who value freedom. Even lawmakers who sometimes wish he would go away admit it is difficult not to like and respect Steve. Never bullying, he is always respectful but steady, and usually on the winning side of the argument if it goes to court.
During the early years of his stewardship at the local ACLU, Brown and Planned Parenthood of RI (where I was the CEO at the time) challenged many laws aimed at restricting and destroying reproductive rights. With the able, free legal representation of ACLU lawyer Lynette Labinger, we won every time. As a result, our daughters and granddaughters will maintain the freedom over their own fertility for which their grandmothers and mothers fought so hard.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for Brown having pressured Governor Carcieri to publicly release details of what seem to be extraordinary severance payments to state government retirees.
Even the Rhode Island rednecks who detest the ACLU for challenging prayers at public school graduations or the banning of same-sex dates at high school proms are happy when these defenders of the Constitution step in to protect the turf — the wallet — where we feel things the most.
Our civil liberties have struggled to survive endless attacks by the White House for eight long years. So this year I'm thankful not only for freedoms saved from the abyss, but also for those warriors who kept liberty alive, in Rhode Island and elsewhere.
To Steve Brown and ACLU folks everywhere — for all you do — this one's for you.