BOSTON — According to its executive director Keith Fournier, the American Center for Law and Justice found a model of sorts in the American Civil Liberties Union. Though the 69-year-old ACLU is bigger than the upstart ACLJ and has a wider agenda, both are groups of lawyers and opinion-shapers who, supplemented by a network of affiliates, fight for what they see as fundamental liberties under the United States Constitution.
Like all mirror images, however, the ACLJ and the ACLU are opposites - at least on most issues of religious rights. The organizations seem to view the First Amendment's religion clauses through opposite ends of a telescope.
``They see a guarantee of religious free speech, and we see a guarantee of religious freedom,'' says Phil Gutis, an ACLU spokesman. On some church-state issues, these different perspectives lead results that are poles apart.
Occasionally the ACLU and ACLJ fight side by side, as in a case last year when the US Supreme Court upheld a religious organization's right to use school facilities made available to secular groups after hours. More often, they face each other across the battlements.
A major dispute these days is over prayers offered by students in graduation ceremonies. The ACLJ says such prayers are constitutional since there's no government involvement, but the ACLU disagrees. Both groups have mailed information supporting their views to more than 15,000 high school administrators.
The ACLJ is ``the ACLU's greatest antagonist,'' the center crowed recently in its monthly publication, adding that, under ACLJ pressure, ``the ACLU is on the run.''
But the ACLU's Mr. Gutis says his organization isn't worried. ``Our perspective [on the separation of church and state], which is shared by many Americans, will prevail.''
He adds: ``The ACLJ has made religious rights a priority issue for us and has caused us to work harder. But that's not a bad thing. It has given us an opportunity for significant public education on religious liberty.''