Constance McMillen successfully challenged the Itawamba County School District’s decision to cancel the senior prom because she planned to attend with her girlfriend.It should have ended there. The judge did not force the school district to reinstate the event because a private prom was being organized by parents. All seemed to be well, until last week, when Constance asked another student for the details about the alternate prom. She was told it was being held at a country club.

When Constance and her date showed up at the country club Friday evening, only five other students were in attendance. Meanwhile, another prom for the other students was under way at a secret location.

As ACLU staff, I have the inside scoop on civil liberties violations – atrocities from illegal body cavity searches by police on the streets of Detroit to the eviction of a woman terminally ill with brain cancer from her apartment for using a legally prescribed medicine. One could reasonably assume that I’ve developed a thick skin; that I can’t be shocked by human behavior.

Well, I can. I am stunned by the actions of these parents in Mississippi and can’t decide which is worse – that a group of adults would organize a secret prom or that they would encourage their own children to lie. Most everyone I’ve told about this simply shakes their head and says, ‘Mississippi.’

I remind them that this could have happened right here in Michigan, and they agree.

It is a common misconception that the ACLU is a strictly litigious organization comprised entirely of lawyers. We aren’t. In fact, only one third of us here toiling away at the ACLU of Michigan hold a degree in law. The rest of us are out in the field, speaking to students on Constitution Day, building coalitions with like-minded organizations, and advocating on behalf of people just like Constance McMillen.

It is the education and advocacy work of the ACLU of Michigan that prevents a situation like Constance McMillen’s from ever making it to court. Our on-the-ground work educating public institutions about offering domestic partner benefits in the wake of Prop 2 in 2004 ensured that thousands of residents and families across Michigan retained their health coverage. Our advocacy on behalf of Gershon Avery, who was arrested for collecting petition signatures at the Clinton Fall Festival, ultimately ensured that the free speech rights of the Village’s residents were protected. In the summer leading up to the 2008 elections, a coalition we created that included religious and community leaders ensured that thousands of voters across Michigan knew their rights when they went to the polls, despite efforts to mislead them and keep them from voting.

These are just three examples. There are dozens of other success stories spanning the 50 years the ACLU of Michigan has been educating the public and advocating on behalf of individuals whose rights have been trampled. Without the support of people like you, our education and advocacy work wouldn’t be possible. Please consider making a gift today.

By Melissa Combs, ACLU of Michigan major gifts officer