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The ACLU was founded in 1920 by Helen Keller, Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, Walter Nelles, Morris Ernst, Albert De Silver, Arthur Garfield Hays, Jane Addams, Felix Frankfurter, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and its focus was on freedom of speech, primarily for anti-war protesters.
In 2006, the Public Expressions of Religion Protection Act sought to prevent monetary judgments in the particular case of violations of church-state separation. The affiliates operate autonomously from the national organization; each affiliate has its own staff, executive director, board of directors, and budget.The ACLU has received court awarded fees from opponents, for example, the Georgia affiliate was awarded $150,000 in fees after suing a county demanding the removal of a Ten Commandments display from its courthouse; Most of the organization's workload is performed by its local affiliates. Each affiliate consists of two non-profit corporations: a 501(c)(3) corporation that does not perform lobbying, and a 501(c)(4) corporation which is entitled to lobby.There is at least one affiliate organization in each state, as well as one in Washington, D. ACLU affiliates are the basic unit of the ACLU's organization and engage in litigation, lobbying, and public education.In particular, the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act of 1976 leaves the government liable in some civil rights cases.Fee awards under this civil rights statute are considered "equitable relief" rather than damages, and government entities are not immune from equitable relief.Due to the nature of its legal work, the ACLU is often involved in litigation against governmental bodies, which are generally protected from adverse monetary judgments; a town, state or federal agency may be required to change its laws or behave differently, but not to pay monetary damages except by an explicit statutory waiver.
In some cases, the law permits plaintiffs who successfully sue government agencies to collect money damages or other monetary relief.
For example, in a twenty-month period beginning January 2004, the ACLU's New Jersey chapter was involved in fifty-one cases according to their annual report—thirty-five cases in state courts, and sixteen in federal court.
They provided legal representation in thirty-three of those cases, and served as amicus in the remaining eighteen.
At its discretion, the national organization provides subsidies to smaller affiliates that lack sufficient resources to be self-sustaining; for example, the Wyoming ACLU chapter received such subsidies until April 2015, when, as part of a round of layoffs at the national ACLU, the Wyoming office was closed.
In October 2004, the ACLU rejected $1.5 million from both the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation because the Foundations had adopted language from the USA PATRIOT Act in their donation agreements, including a clause stipulating that none of the money would go to "underwriting terrorism or other unacceptable activities." The ACLU views this clause, both in Federal law and in the donors' agreements, as a threat to civil liberties, saying it is overly broad and ambiguous.
The board of directors consists of 80 persons, including representatives from each state affiliate, as well as at-large delegates.