ACLU's premier West Michigan luncheon features awards, speaker

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 LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

To say that the first annual West Michigan luncheon of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan was moving is an understatement.

From a prominent attorney’s personal tale of being able to marry the man he loved from whom he was formerly separated by thousands of miles; to the overwhelmed tears of a woman who has been willing to tell over and over her painful story of maltreatment by the health care system; to the keynote address by a brilliant journalist whose undocumented status means, among other things, that he has not been able to see his mother for over 20 years, the program conspired to engender emotion in the most hardened attendee.

The ACLU being what it is, though, there were not too many at the luncheon with hard hearts. As Executive Director Kary Moss noted in her remarks, ACLU is associated with “liberal” causes, but in reality, the ACLU finds that defending constitutional rights has placed it all over the map as far as political categories.

Begun in 1920 in response to the “Palmer Raids” (the subject of a series of reprinted articles by Patrick E. Mears in Grand Rapids Legal News issues of late 2011 and early 2012), when the U.S. Attorney General ignored the rights of U.S. citizens with Communist leanings it sought to deport, the ACLU was founded by Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, George Kessler, Helen Keller and Walter Nelles.

One of the best-known instances of the ACLU protecting the rights of those who espouse even the most unpopular causes was its 1978 defense of neo-Nazis who wanted to march in Skokie, Ill., a town then populated by many Holocaust survivors. The ACLU also opposed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, one of the few to do so.

The national ACLU has grown to over 500,000 members.

The West Michigan office of the ACLU, headed by Miriam Aukerman and staffed by Julia Henshaw, opened up only three years ago; Wednesday’s luncheon was an official celebration of those three years. It also marked the first time for the ACLU West Michigan “Advocate” awards.

Wednesday’s first awards went to business partners active in a campaign to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes to Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Accepting awards were Lizbeth O’Shaughnessy, Senior Vice President, Chief Legal Officer and Secretary of Steelcase; Michael Ramirez, Senior Vice President of People, Places and Administration for Herman Miller; and Shelley Padnos, Executive Vice President of PADNOS.

Mary Bejian, Director of Philanthropy for ACLU of Michigan, talked about her nomination of Ric Roane of Warner Norcross and Judd. She spoke glowingly of her first contact with him, saying he welcomed her request to help in the historic United States v. Windsor case on spousal benefits rights for same-sex married couples.

As Roane accepted the Advocate for Equality award, he told a moving tale about falling in love seven years ago with a man who resided in South America, and the couple’s despair about ever being together. When the Defense of Marriage Act was deemed unconstitutional, Roane married Dr. Leandro Robles in Washington, D.C., allowing Robles to become a citizen.

Robles was in attendance, as were several of Roane’s Warner Norcross colleagues. Robles also served on the Host Committee for the luncheon along with attorneys, well-known community activists, and the ACLU Western Region President, Mitch Min Chol Dennison.

Receiving the Advocate for Freedom Award was Tamesha Means, a Muskegon woman who was sent home from the Catholic Mercy Hospital while having a miscarriage, due to a policy directive of the Catholic Health Care Services that prohibits terminating a pregnancy under any circumstances, and further dictates that the health care providers will not even tell a patient about alternative treatments. Means was in pain, and Mercy system hospitals are the only alternatives available in the Muskegon area. ACLU has brought suit on her behalf, and the attorney in charge, Brooke Tucker, spoke about how courageous Means has been in repeatedly telling her painful story to the press, the courts, and anyone who is interested.

As Means faced a standing ovation at the luncheon, tears welled up, and her fierce speech about standing up for every woman who has been denied health care due to that policy was punctuated by composing herself. 

The keynote presentation by speaker and Pulitzer Price winner Jose Antonio Vargas, about “coming out of the closet” as an undocumented American, was so moving and far-reaching that it will be the subject of another Grand Rapids Legal News article, after the June 29 showing of Vargas’s film Documented on the cable-TV?channel CNN.