Strippers, Skinheads and Larry Craig

by NATHANIEL HOFFMAN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or 18 years, Jack Van Valkenburgh has led the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho. When Boise required strippers to cover their nipples, he was there, passing out pasties (with "ACLU" printed on them). When Coeur d'Alene said Richard Butler and his neo-Nazis couldn't march, he was there, defending their right to do so. Whenever a public school started pushing religion, he was there, fighting for the left-out kid in the corner. Valkenburgh helped bring the ACLU to Idaho and now he's stepping down, effective May 1. We couldn't let him leave without sharing a few stories.

Do you remember the public reaction when the ACLU was formed in Idaho in '89, '90?

There was a lot of excitement. The first Bill of Rights celebration that we had had monks who were visiting from Tibet, and it was just a fluke, but we got them to visit us as well.

Why are abortion rights such an important issue for the ACLU?

We view it as the right of a woman to control her body and to control her medical privacy. We do recognize that a fetus is going to become a living person upon birth, and we do recognize the rights of a fetus upon fetal viability, much as the U.S. Supreme Court does under Roe, but until then we think it's really a woman's choice in consultation with her doctor, her partner and whoever else she chooses to consult with.

Talking about a woman's right to control her body ... there've been perennial crackdowns at strip clubs in Idaho over the years. Are there any parallels between abortion rights and strippers' rights?

That's a free speech issue. You should be able to dress as you see fit, especially in a private or closed establishment. I don't know what business the government has in telling consenting adults how they need to dress inside a building that's not owned by the government.

Let's move on to religion in schools. Is the question of prayer in school more settled now in Idaho?

I think the law has been made a little more clear as to the demarcation between what is permissible. Religious liberty we want to protect. It's okay for children to pray quietly in school as long as they don't disturb others. But they can't be directed to do so or coerced to do so by the school authorities... We still have issues... I don't want to say that things are that much better, things are a little quieter now than they were, but that can change.

Of all the civil liberties issues, does the religious stuff get the most attention, especially in Idaho?

Yeah, it's as core a concern for us and our members as any concern in Idaho and nationally. I think many people respect us because we are so dedicated to the separation of church and state. We recognize that it's integral to protecting religious freedom, so those issues are inevitably a priority for us.

What common ground has the ACLU found with Idaho politicians on 9/11 security and privacy questions?

I'm not always pleased with how our federal delegation votes on warrantless surveillance or FISA issues, but certainly the Republicans recognize the right to privacy as a concern and we do too. ... I think Larry Craig did a pretty good job attacking the Fed's abuse of Randy Weaver's rights back in the days of Ruby Ridge in the early-mid '90s.

Tell me about the ACLU's relationship with Larry Craig?

Larry Craig is one example and I thought the most recent example of us ... aligning ourselves with someone whom we've fought. We've fought him about a number of issues. He hasn't been a leader against gay rights, but he certainly has not been a proponent. He's voted the wrong way and yet we're defending his right to alleged behavior in the bathroom. Whether or not the allegations are true, we think he had the right to behave in that way.

The ACLU of Idaho has not been that outspoken in defending Larry Craig. Why not?

It's really not our case. I do believe that the prosecution was bogus and it should never have been set up as a trap but rather, if there were stories of sex happening in bathroom stalls, then there should have been warning signs or the like to prevent that, instead of secretly waiting in a bathroom stall hoping to entice somebody to misbehave.

You have defended skinheads and neo-Nazis in Idaho. Have you personally dealt with those groups as the director?

You bet. Somewhere I have a letter from Richard Butler thanking us for our good work. I know it's on the video, there's a 5- or 10-minute video that we showed at our 10th anniversary in 2003. We get calls occasionally from extremists and we got a call from Richard Butler saying he'd been denied his parade permit.

He called you himself?

Yeah, we had to take him seriously and so we did. That's the price of living in a democracy. You have to defend the rights of people you don't agree with as well as the rights of people you do agree with, and I think civil libertarians are people who have the confidence that the civilization, the American Way, can prevail and we can survive the mess of ugly speech.

Do you have a top case in your 18 years at the ACLU?

I know one of the best works was providing Medicaid funds for low-income women's abortions. We were in effect providing real choice to all Idaho women whether they are financially able or not. We won with respect to medically necessary abortions. But at any rate the Legislature changed the law and that was a disappointment.

How is gay rights a civil liberties issue in Idaho?

It's equal rights. It's your right to be treated equally as a couple. There's no doubt that that's a civil liberties issue. ... I can better understand somebody being anti-abortion than I can understand them being against equal rights for gays and lesbians. So fundamentally it's equal protection and the U.S. Supreme Court someday will hold it so, but politically the climate just isn't right.

What's the reputation of Idaho in ACLU circles?

For many years we were like Utah, one of the most backward states in the nation, and today we are still in some ways but we're quieter. We're not flaunting our discrimination the way we used to. In a way it's harder, it's almost a harder battle to fight because I feel as though the powers that be are more sophisticated and are smarter.

So what are you going to do now?

I was talking to somebody today about doing some green ventures, but I've been thinking that I'll probably go back to do some law, to do immigration law because there's a lot of need for it.

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