Thanks to generous support from ACLU members Doug and Shirley Johnson of Oberlin, Ohio, the ACLU-NCLF is thrilled to announce the creation of the Natalie Fiess Fund for the Preservation of Civil Liberties and Religious Freedom (the “Fiess Fund”). These funds are designated for use by the ACLU-NCLF for the publication and dissemination of informational booklets to local government officials, school board members, and the attorneys who advise them. These booklets were researched and drafted by Loyola law student Rebecca Husman during the Summer and Fall of 2007, and they are currently being revised and edited by ACLU-NCLF Legal Director Katy Parker.

There are four booklets being produced. Two will be disseminated to school board members, school officials, and the attorneys who advise them, and the topics covered are: (1.) religious liberty issues that arise in public school settings (school-led prayers, students’ religious freedom rights, religious symbols in the classroom, Bible curricula, the dissemination of Bibles or other holy texts on school property, students’ rights to form a Bible club or other religious club, etc.) and the relevant case law governing these situations, and (2.) other civil liberties issues that arise in public school settings, i.e. free speech, due process, the rights of students, faculty and staff to abstain from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, drug testing, searches of students’ property, equal protection for GLBT students, minority students, and students with disabilities, and the relevant case law governing these situations and many more. The ACLU-NCLF already produces Know-Your-Rights booklets for public school students on religious liberty issues and other civil liberties issues, as we have done for years. This new project is designed to inform the decision-makers in school districts, with the aim of reducing the number of civil liberties violations that occur by educating decision-makers before they are faced with making decisions on issues that affect students’ constitutional rights.

The second set of booklets will be disseminated to local government officials (city council members, county commissioners, etc.) and the attorneys who advise them. One booklet covers religious liberty issues that arise in local government settings, i.e. holiday displays on public property, prayers opening official government meetings, the use of religious texts for administering courtroom oaths, and many other situations in which local government officials are faced with religious liberty issues, and explains the relevant case law governing these situations. The second booklet for local government officials covers other civil liberties issues that arise, i.e. teen curfews, panhandling ordinances, parade and permit issues, local sign ordinances, local enforcement of immigration laws, access to government buildings, and more, including relevant case law.

The Fiess Fund will not only help cover the costs of printing and disseminating these valuable resource materials to school board and local government officials statewide, but we will also be able to use part of the fund to sponsor a continuing legal education seminar for attorneys on religious liberty issues, planned for sometime in 2009. This seminar will be coordinated by our Legal Director Katy Parker, with the aim of bringing attorneys up to speed on the most current trends in the law and recent Supreme Court decisions concerning religious liberty and the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clause provisions.

These endeavors are being undertaken pursuant to the ACLU-NCLF’s strategic plan for reducing the number of civil liberties violations experienced by North Carolinians on a daily basis, but we did not have the resources to carry out these plans. Then, through a stroke of remarkable serendipity last October, we received a phone call from Doug and Shirley Johnson in Oberlin, Ohio, informing us that their lifelong friend Natalie Fiess had passed away in Chapel Hill in May 2007, and the Johnsons were interested in designating a fund in her memory that would be used to advance the cause of civil liberties in North Carolina. After reviewing the ACLU-NCLF’s strategic plan with Executive Director Jennifer Rudinger, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson created the Natalie Fiess Fund for the Preservation of Civil Liberties and Religious Freedom and endowed it with just enough funding to launch this project and get it off the ground for one year.

Natalie Fiess passed away peacefully on May 27, 2007, at Carol Woods Retirement Community after bravely battling a yearlong illness. She was born on January 25, 1921 in New York City to Eugenia and James Zilboorg, American citizens formerly of Kiev, Russia. She attended Antioch College in Ohio, where she met Doug and Shirley Johnson and where she also met Ed Fiess, whom she married in 1942.

Natalie and Ed moved to Long Island when he joined the faculty of SUNY — Stony Brook. She taught second grade for many years and then became the assistant to the chairman of the chemistry department at SUNY — Stony Brook, a position she held until her retirement in 1985. She and Ed moved to Chapel Hill in 1994 and took up residence at Carol Woods. Ed passed away in 1998.

According to those who knew her best, Natalie always stayed true to her values and taught her daughters, Peggy and Jennifer, that the purpose of life is to leave the world better than you found it. Throughout her adult life, she was active in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and enjoyed travel and spending time with friends and family — especially her granddaughters.

Natalie’s daughter Peggy Schaeffer says, “My mother was passionate about many things, including second-graders, Gothic cathedrals, Stuart Little, dachshunds, and preserving the separation of church and state. Her eclectic background included her family’s Jewish heritage, a year in a Quaker high school, and her lifelong commitment to civil liberties and freedom of religion. She was a firm believer in public education and would have been delighted to know that this fund will be used, in part, to strengthen religious freedom and civil liberties in North Carolina’s schools.”