Free to Speak Her Mind

Equally foreign to her was Utah's theocratic culture: Mormon leaders dominate the legislature, the courts, and the state's executive branch. "I arrived in Utah and the newspaper did this big story about me," she remembers. "They published my picture. I was a nobody and suddenly I'm in the newspaper. I thought, 'This is unbelievable. This is what they do for all new executive directors?' Then, later on, I thought, 'No, this is what they do for all New York Jews because they want to know who you are. They are saying, 'Watch out for her -- she could be poisoning minds.'"

Describe the atmosphere in which you worked in Utah and how it may have prepared you for Florida.

I got a very strong sense of the religiosity of the state. This was a state where there was one question: Are you or aren't you [a Mormon]? I like to tell people that when I went to Salt Lake, suddenly I was a gentile, because Mormons believe anyone who is not a Mormon is a gentile. My grandmother would have been so proud. Of course, when I moved down here, I became an Anglo.

Certainly there's an orthodoxy in Utah, as there is now in South Florida. As in Miami, it's hard for people who are in that community or just on the fringes of that community. So to people who were Jack Mormon -- people who had left the church -- leaders were much more repressive. My fun was being a total outsider and being completely licensed to do what was right. I was from New York, my friends were in New York, my family was in New York. I didn't have to make people like me and I didn't have to avoid making waves. So I went in there like gangbusters and I created a lot of noise, and I think I gained the respect of a lot of people because they hadn't heard this kind of challenge before.

Did the ACLU ever go to court to defend the Mormon Church?

We defended a polygamist. The battle was over whether a polygamist could be per se precluded from adopting children, and it went all the way up to the Utah Supreme Court, which decided that a polygamist could not be precluded just because he was a polygamist. In Utah those people who practice polygamy are not sex maniacs. They are engaging in what they consider their religious practice. We thought it was a religious-freedom fight.

Has that case provided any foundation for your Florida work?

It's exactly the same as the Santeria case. The principal is just the same. The case was the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye against the City of Hialeah. What [city council members] did was they passed a series of ordinances that forbid the ritual slaughter of animals. You could kill it, but you just couldn't pray over it when you did. If you go back and look at the notes of the public hearing, the city council members are talking about how, if you don't believe in Jesus Christ, you don't belong in the City of Hialeah, basically. Clearly it was a case of religious persecution. We lost in the district court and we lost in the Eleventh Circuit, and we didn't win until we took it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and then we won it unanimously.

For an ACLU director, Utah would seem to represent a great challenge because the Mormon Church wields such unusual power over government. In contrast, free-speech issues in Florida must have seemed less dramatic.

It may seem like Utah is the anti-civil-liberties mecca where you would feel totally powerful and righteous. I used to say the legislature of Utah wakes up, trips over the Constitution, and starts its day. But that's true in spades here in Florida. You have northern Florida, which is the Bible belt, where you still have prayer in school. We've done work in Nassau County, where Florida dips into Georgia. There was an eighth-grade teacher who every morning would read her Bible story in class, and when little Nicole Hatch objected to it, the response of the school board, at a very raucous meeting, was to offer Nicole a chair in the hallway during the readings. We went to federal court and not only was the policy of the school board found to be unconstitutional, Nicole was also awarded $15,000 in damages. There's nothing like the ebullience you feel once you win an important victory like that. I've felt like that much more often here because I have the resources to do more here.

After just eighteen months in Utah, Blumner took the position as head of Florida's statewide ACLU chapter, and she quickly found herself at odds with the willful Miami affiliate -- a portent of other skirmishes to come, notably with the leadership of the national ACLU office.

In 1988, just before Blumner arrived, Ben Waxman, now president of the Miami chapter, had filed a lawsuit to stop police from arresting homeless people simply because they lived in public places. Initially Blumner interpreted the lawsuit as an attempt to redress all the wrongs suffered by that class of people, and she balked. As she says: "The ACLU can't save the world."

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