Rita Sklar: Protecting The Bill Of Rights

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 12:00 am  

Rita Sklar (Photo by Michael Pirnique)

Rita Sklar has been in Arkansas for 22 years, 20 of them with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, and yet she’s clearly not from around here.

Raised in the Bronx in a family of what she described as “social Jews,” Sklar had tried careers in acting and academia before finding a professional home in the ACLU.

“My parents were progressives; their parents were poor immigrants. So I was raised with a certain set of values, a strong sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, the poor, the powerless,” Sklar said earlier this month.

So even though her formal studies had been of religion and philosophy rather than law and politics, she took her then-husband’s advice and applied for a job at the ACLU’s national headquarters in New York. “And the minute I stepped foot in that building and heard two women arguing — in an intellectual way — I felt right at home.”

She was pregnant with her son when her husband accepted a teaching position with the University of Central Arkansas in 1991. “Arkansas seemed as good a place as any. It seemed like a big adventure,” she said.

After staying home with her Arkansas-born son for more than a year, Sklar started looking for a job — and promptly became convinced that “there was no place for someone like me.”

Then, in 1992, a few months into her job search, a minor miracle occurred: The executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas moved to Texas, and the perfect job suddenly opened up. Although the ACLU has had a presence in Arkansas since 1969 — originally in Fayetteville, where University of Arkansas professors were being required to sign loyalty oaths during the Vietnam War — the organization and Sklar now seem inseparable.

The ACLU of Arkansas recently hired its fourth employee — “exponential growth by our standards,” Skalr said. The nonprofit organization has about 2,500 members “all over the state, in the smallest, most unlikely places.” With the guidance of her board of directors, she and her staff work on the ACLU’s three missions: legislative, legal and educational. While all ACLU chapters are guided by a set of national policies, the local boards and executives are semi-autonomous in deciding how to deploy limited resources most effectively.

Generally associated with “progressive” or “liberal” causes, Sklar said the ACLU is nonpartisan and rarely even comments on judicial candidates or nominations. “Our client is the Bill of Rights, which applies to everybody,” she said, pointing out that the ACLU had defended conservative icons like Oliver North and Rush Limbaugh.

During legislative sessions, like the current one, Sklar is at the Capitol virtually full time, and the changes there during the past two decades are palpable. But having control of both houses of the Legislature in Republican hands for the first time in living memory is not as different as it might seem — especially when it comes to attempts to limit abortion rights.

“I have seen the legislative body go through several phases on that issue,” Sklar said. “Anti-choice legislation used to come out of the House and be stopped in the Senate. There was a lot of bad stuff stopped by a handful of good people — and I don’t know if there was a single Republican face back then.”

In 2011, when Democrats still controlled both houses, 11 bills aimed at limiting reproductive rights were introduced, and 10 of them were killed, Sklar said.

What’s changed, she said, is there are “fewer [legislators] interested in social justice, or at least fewer who are willing to take the heat.”

The ACLU has also attempted to preserve civil rights for homosexuals in Arkansas, and this is an area in which she has observed dramatic shifts in attitudes — including having openly gay candidates and even a legislator. “That is very satisfying,” Sklar said.

The ACLU has not, however, inserted itself into what might look like a natural fight over the Bill of Rights: gun rights. That, Sklar said, is because the ACLU officially insists that the Second Amendment refers to the right of states to raise militias rather than about individual gun ownership, despite clear Supreme Court decisions to that effect.

The organization, then, has not considered gun control to be a civil liberties issue, although Sklar said there is internal discussion about changing that position.

In a state that has always been conservative socially and that has become increasingly conservative politically, Sklar’s job might seem to require courage, or at least a very thick skin. Not so, she says.

“People assume it takes courage to do what I’m doing, but I don’t understand what they are talking about. In my family, in the area I come from, these are very common ways of thinking,” Sklar said.

And the state to which she relocated had made it as pleasant as possible to be an outsider.

“Arkansans really don’t like confrontation, so I’ve had very few people say anything ugly to my face,” she said, then smiled. “Ugly — that’s a word I picked up in Arkansas.”

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