American Civil Liberties Union has settled 4 high-profile cases in past 2 months.
Three years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union was a distant entity with little or no connections in Orange County.
But that has changed since September 2005 when the ACLU decided to set up in a small office suite on Chapman Avenue in Orange with two attorneys and one legal assistant.
This group has handled at least 10 cases since, not counting others that were resolved before a lawsuit was filed. In the last two months, ACLU attorneys have settled four high-profile Orange County cases. They have represented a Buddhist congregation in Garden Grove seeking to build a temple in an office complex, day laborers in Lake Forest, a Christian group that was banned from feeding the homeless in Doheny State Beach and a man who was thrown out of a Costa Mesa City Council meeting.
The group’s entry into Orange County has been a long time coming, said Ramona Ripston, executive director of ACLU Southern California.
“Orange County has changed dramatically over the years,” Ripston said. “However, we continue to deal with the same issues we have dealt with since the ’70s – race, poverty and rights for the underprivileged.”
ACLU Orange County has also tackled other issues in the last three years, says attorney Hector Villagra, who heads the local office.
Villagra says one of the first cases they took on involved a controversial program proposed by the Fullerton School District, which required parents to spend $1,500 to equip their children with laptop computers. A group of parents, who believed they were being scrutinized and discriminated against by the school district over their reluctance to pay for the laptops, approached the ACLU, which was able to reach an agreement with the school district to make the program accessible to all students.
That case, in fact, was pivotal in introducing the ACLU to all segments of the Orange County population, including conservative Christians such as Sandra Dingess, who admits she had certain pre-conceived notions about the ACLU.
“I had this stereotypical notion of the ACLU, that they were always the devil’s advocate, on the wrong side of issues,” says the Fullerton parent, who at the time was faced with putting $6,000 on her credit card to laptops for four children. “But in this case, they protected my rights and my children’s rights.”
Jim Seiler, a member of Christian group Welcome INN, said ACLU was a last resort for him and other members of his group, who were stopped by state park officials in February from feeding the homeless on Doheny State Beach. The group fed at least 50 people on the beach each evening, Monday through Friday, he said.
“I’d always thought of the ACLU as representing atheists and groups of people whose ideas I don’t subscribe to,” Seiler said. “I was shocked that they offered to help us.”
Although ACLU won some hearts in conservative quarters, their most vehement critics remain local city officials and those with strong positions on the immigration issue.
The ACLU sued the city of Lake Forest and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department over a city ordinance that barred laborers from soliciting work on Lake Forest sidewalks. City Councilman Richard Dixon says his experience with the ACLU in that case left a bitter taste in his mouth. He said the city wasn’t enforcing the ordinance.
ACLU filed a frivolous lawsuit that benefited no one and cost taxpayers heavily, Dixon said.
“Maybe some of their lawsuits are beneficial,” he said. “But by and large, I find them trying to grandstand and chest-pound when they don’t need to be pounding their chests. It’s complete nonsense. In our case, thankfully, truth and justice won over stupidity.”
The protracted lawsuit ended in August when the city and the sheriff’s department agreed to allow the day laborers to solicit work on public sidewalks as long as they followed the law.
In other instances where the ACLU was involved, there were issues of conflict between local government and federal laws. The ACLU filed a lawsuit last year against the city of Garden Grove challenging their zoning laws for denying a building permit to a Buddhist temple on Chapman Avenue.
Belinda Escobosa-Helzer, who represented the temple on behalf of the ACLU, said the city violated the temple members’ rights to congregate and practice their religion. This case culminated in a settlement agreement in September with the city agreeing to give the temple another chance to apply for a permit, which would be “considered favorably.”
But Garden Grove Councilman Mark Rosen, who voted against that agreement in closed session, said the case should have gone to trial.
“As a councilman, I wanted to see the federal law challenged,” he said. “I don’t believe federal government should interfere with decisions that are made by local governments.”
Escobosa-Helzer said she found, especially during this case, that having an office in Orange County helps her interact and communicate better with clients.
In the future, Villagra says his office will continue to be involved with issues such as education, immigrant rights and rights of those in jail. Recently, his office sent out a letter to the sheriff’s department alerting them to a complaint from inmates that they were being forced to share razor blades.
“There was a legitimate concern of HIV and Hepatitis,” he said. “But that issue was resolved with a letter.”
Their goal in Orange County is also to build ties with the community, Escobosa-Helzer said.
“It helps us recognize the problems in different communities and ways to find solutions,” she said.
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