Wyoming ACLU Abruptly Closes, Leaving Many Without A Voice
When WPR visited Wyoming American Civil Liberties Union Director Linda Burt at her sunny Cheyenne office she was packing boxes in between phone calls. She didn’t seem like someone who had just found out she was losing her job.
“A guy who used to be on the [ACLU] board just called me to commiserate,” she said. “He suggested I come visit him in Las Vegas, so I could always do that.”
A vacation would only take the edge off of what has been a fairly rough week for Burt and the few other ACLU staffers that make their home in Wyoming. Burt said that last month they were told by the National ACLU organization in New York that across the board budget cuts were pending, but they wouldn’t result in any jobs lost in Wyoming.
But last Monday, the Wyoming office got another phone call.
“At 9:30 am in the morning I was told our office would be closing, and that we would be laid off,” Burt said.
Burt and her staff were shocked, but there was nothing they could do. While every state has had an ACLU office, Wyoming was one of a only a few that was deemed a “Chapter:” an organizational structure where the National ACLU organization provides the vast majority of the office’s budget, and makes all staffing decisions. The ACLU offices in Puerto Rico and the Dakotas also use the “Chapter” structure. Most other offices are considered “Affiliates,” which leaves them responsible for raising the majority of their budgets, but gives them more autonomy as well.
Wyoming’s ACLU office had been a “Chapter” since it opened in 1997, but Burt said even if they had been given the opportunity to fundraise locally, Wyoming’s small population and lack of major ACLU donors would have made surviving without much outside help that very difficult.
Burt said that generally the Wyoming ACLU had a good relationship with the national organization, although there was some tension between the two this year over Wyoming’s failed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. National ACLU leaders wanted to lobby aggressively against it; Burt and the Wyoming staffers preferred a softer approach, but they were overruled. “Lobbying in Wyoming is unique,” Burt said. “Our relationships are personal here. And when you have a big state like California or New York, or even Colorado, you may not have, and probably don’t have, the the kind of personal relationships that we have with legislators.”
The National ACLU declined to comment for this story.
Whatever the reason for the closure, Burt says it leaves many of Wyoming’s most marginalized without a voice. “We’ve answered literally thousands of letters,” she said. “And at this point in time when people are calling and saying ‘Who can I call? Who can I talk to?’ I am saying nobody.”
During its almost twenty year span in the state the Wyoming ACLU advocated for things like better medical care and access to religious garments in state prisons, freedom of speech, and anti-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian workers. Burt and her staff have worked closely with state officials and legislators to accomplish their goals. But they stood out in that the people they worked for were often ignored by other policy makers, says Marcia Shanor, Director of the Wyoming Trial Lawyer Association. “They know our legislators, they know our policy makers, they know our process and they know our people. And often, in the halls of the capitol, the ACLU was the only voice on certain issues.”
In conservative circles the ACLU has often been seen as a far left group, and the Wyoming office didn’t always escape that stereotype. Steve Klein spent years at Wyoming Liberty, a free-market think tank that in the past went toe to toe with the ACLU. “They obviously take some very controversial positions,” he said by phone from his new home in Virginia. “Some of which I staunchly disagreed with.”
But the groups occasionally worked together as well. Most recently they collaborated on a bill that would have made it illegal for police to seize property from people who are only suspected of a crime--a process known as “civil asset forfeiture”. Klein said that the existence of the Wyoming ACLU fostered debate that, ultimately, benefited the whole state.
“They always exhibited high standards of research and civility. This is just a huge loss.”
That loss is personal for Alberto Enriquez. He runs the hispanic ministry at St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Gillette, and recently he’s been working with some families that, due to the language barrier, have had trouble getting social security numbers for children born in Wyoming. “Sometimes hispanic people, they don’t know how to fill out the information [at the hospital after their child’s birth] completely,” he said. “And they miss some things.”
Enriquez says when that happens the local social security office requests that the parents come in themselves. But many of those parents are undocumented, and scared. Enriquez said that, when he tried to help, he hit a bureaucratic wall.
That changed when he called the ACLU. A staff attorney there reached out to the social security office and mediated with the families to get their American children social security numbers. But now Enriquez is working with another family facing the same problem, and this time, he doesn’t know where to turn. “[the closing the Wyoming ACLU office] is going to be difficult for us,” he said. “I am sad because now I don’t know where to start to help these people.”
Wyoming ACLU Director Linda Burt will stay in the office until the end of April to tie up loose ends. After that there will be one ACLU staffer left in the state, working only on LGBT rights issues. She’ll stay until her grant runs out, in August.
NATIONAL ACLU STATEMENT
On March 30th, 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union instituted a seven percent reduction in force and other cost-saving measures. While the organization is financially healthy and is experiencing strong fundraising, these cuts are necessary in order to balance expenses and revenues, and to allow strategic growth in targeted program areas.
The ACLU will restructure its Wyoming operation as a result of the financial realignment. The office in Cheyenne will close in April but the ACLU will continue to have a presence in the state with restructured staffing. A Wyoming-based ACLU staff member will continue ongoing advocacy work, supported by staff at the national headquarters. There will be no discernable change in legal intake procedures. Individuals who wish to report instances of civil liberties violations should contact ACLU-WY via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to P.O. Box 20706, Cheyenne, WY 82003. The ACLU will ensure that legal intake is monitored by our national staff.