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In Counterweight Division, ACLU Has a Fight

As great Orange County rivalries go, this may never match Mater Dei vs. Mission Viejo in prep football. Or Fashion Island vs. South Coast Plaza in upscale shopping.

But let history note that this is Day 1 of a challenge thrown down by the conservative Pacific Justice Institute to none other than the liberal-minded American Civil Liberties Union.

“We at the Pacific Justice Institute are tired of seeing the big bully known as the ACLU trouncing on some of the civil liberties of parents and churches and families and people of faith,” says Brad Dacus, the institute’s president.

Sounding like a happy and good-to-go Achilles before a Trojan War skirmish, Dacus was just getting warmed up: “From this day forward,” he says, “the ACLU is going to have to look behind themselves at virtually every local government meeting they attend before delivering some threat that’s not supported by law.”

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We’re talking over the phone, with Dacus on the Trinity Law School campus in Santa Ana for the institute’s grand opening Monday. Not to bait him, but after several minutes of taking in his exuberance, I ask if he’s as gleeful as he sounds at the prospect of taking on the ACLU.

“Yeah, we’re very gleeful,” he says, “that we’re now going to be in a position to unabashedly go head-to-head with the ACLU to a degree and depth that we’ve not had the luxury to do.”

I don’t often hear the word “unabashedly” when interviewing people. Dacus’ thirst for battle may stem from a feeling that Orange County would welcome a conservative organization that has taken on cases tinged with religious or other social causes.

He agrees that the county is “without question a friendlier environment than perhaps other parts of California,” but notes that the office -- staffed by a lone attorney -- will serve several counties in and around Los Angeles.

The nonprofit institute, based in Sacramento, does almost all its business in California. It has, among its cases, opposed the formation of Gay-Straight Alliance clubs on high school campuses and supported cities’ rights to display crosses. In an Orange County case three years ago, the institute supported a group of Fountain Valley High School students who wore T-shirts spelling out Christian messages while posing for the senior class photo.

When the ACLU opened its first Orange County office a year ago, the story line was that of the liberal group in traditional conservative territory. Dacus gets the point, but says the organization is not to be dismissed.

“Without question, the ACLU is a major force to be reckoned with,” he says. But he sees it as a group that has showed up at school board or city council meetings and either cowed or otherwise influenced policymakers with threats of legal action.

That, it must be said, is not a tactic lost on Dacus’ group. However, he says, the institute’s presence in Orange County will mean that its forces also will be at those meetings, providing elected officials “much more freedom to do what they feel is right, as opposed to what the ACLU tells them to do or not do.”

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The “forces” to which Dacus refers are some 300 “affiliated” local attorneys. He refers to the cadre of attorneys -- available for deployment by the institute’s local on-site attorney -- as “our secret silver bullet.”

You probably wonder how the ACLU is taking all this.

I put in a call to them Monday afternoon to assess the state of their trembling, but didn’t hear back by the time I was finishing this column.

You want my guess as to what they’re doing?

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Once they got wind that the Pacific Justice Institute was around, they began packing up their files, donning disguises and high-tailing it out of town.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.


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