Both organizations engage in civil rights litigation, advocacy, and education, but only donations to the 501(c)(3) foundation are tax deductible, and only the 501(c)(4) group can engage in unlimited political lobbying.
The ACLU was founded in 1920 by Helen Keller, Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, Walter Nelles, Morris Ernst, Albert De Silver, Arthur Garfield Hays, Jane Addams, Felix Frankfurter, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and its focus was on freedom of speech, primarily for anti-war protesters.
The local affiliates solicit their own funding; however, some also receive funds from the national ACLU, with the distribution and amount of such assistance varying from state to state.
At its discretion, the national organization provides subsidies to smaller affiliates that lack sufficient resources to be self-sustaining; for example, the Wyoming ACLU chapter received such subsidies until April 2015, when, as part of a round of layoffs at the national ACLU, the Wyoming office was closed.
Current positions of the ACLU include: opposing the death penalty; supporting same-sex marriage and the right of LGBT people to adopt; supporting birth control and abortion rights; eliminating discrimination against women, minorities, and LGBT people; supporting the rights of prisoners and opposing torture; and opposing government preference for religion over non-religion, or for particular faiths over others.
The leadership of the ACLU does not always agree on policy decisions; differences of opinion within the ACLU leadership have sometimes grown into major debates.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the ACLU ventured into new legal areas, involving the rights of homosexuals, students, prisoners, and the poor.
In the twenty-first century, the ACLU has fought the teaching of creationism in public schools and challenged some provisions of anti-terrorism legislation as infringing on privacy and civil liberties.
During the 1920s, the ACLU expanded its scope to include protecting the free speech rights of artists and striking workers, and working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to decrease racism and discrimination.
During the 1930s, the ACLU started to engage in work combating police misconduct and supporting Native American rights.
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Local affiliates of the ACLU are active in almost all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.