PHIL GUTIS, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, is blunt: ``The ACLJ wants to put prayer back into public schools.'' Mr. Gutis is not alone in his view that the American Center for Law and Justice has a hidden agenda.
``There's a feeling around here that the ACLJ has a bigger agenda than just protecting religious free speech,'' says Mark Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress who has opposed the ACLJ in court.
The ACLJ does not aim ``to replace a democratic form of government with a theocratic one,'' says Keith Fournier, the center's executive director. ``No one wants establishment of religion in the wrong way.'' But critics assert that, in its calls for government ``accommodation'' of religion, the ACLJ seeks much-greater religious penetration into the public sphere.
A core issue is whether one regards the wall between church and state as a protection for religion or an attack on it.
Taking the former view are organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, based in Silver Spring, Md. Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, says many of its members ``are offended by the ACLJ's claim that Americans United is antireligion, because many Baptists and other religious people have been active in it from the start. Separation of church and state doesn't squelch religious freedom, but fosters it.''
``The ACLJ sees put-downs of religion where we just see government neutrality toward religion,'' Mr. Stern says. ``The ACLJ has a dualistic view of the universe - good versus bad, religion versus antireligion.''
The ACLJ also takes flak from both civil-liberties and religious-rights groups for staying out of the battle to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which President Clinton signed in November. The act reverses the effects of a 1989 Supreme Court decision that was widely denounced as harmful to religious rights. It was backed by an unusually broad array of rights groups - many of them strange bedfellows - including Americans United, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the ACLU.
The ACLJ says it was simply too busy to get behind the Act.
Steven McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom and a leading advocate for RFRA, says, ``The evangelical community slept through RFRA, but it will be the main beneficiary.'' Mr. McFarland speculates that ``some organizations may have had concerns about associational purity. They didn't want to tell supporters they were cooperating with bogeymen like the ACLU and People for the American Way.''
McFarland - who says his organization ``agrees with the ACLJ 90 percent of the time'' - notes a few differences on matters of style more than substance. He says, for instance, that the ACLJ wants ``a standing army [of lawyers], whereas we believe in training the militia'' - affiliate lawyers around the country.
McFarland also implies that the ACLJ, perhaps for fund-raising purposes, engages in occasional grandstanding. ``We don't believe in rushing off somewhere just because the media spotlight happens to be on a case,'' he says.
But McFarland also praises Fournier and ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow for their ``refreshingly cooperative approach. They don't engage in turf wars, and they're not afraid to give credit to others. They have worked hard to forge bonds with other Christian advocacy organizations.''