NEW YORK, March 3, 2005 -- The power and pervasiveness of the American Civil Liberties Union has been on display this week. The national civil rights advocacy group was involved in the Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, the battle over Ten Commandments displays in public buildings and a lawsuit blaming Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the alleged torture of foreign fighters.
The network of more than 1,000 civil rights attorneys -- most of them volunteers -- has become one of the most controversial and least understood groups in the country. It gets criticism from many quarters, but also support from places that might be surprising.
Many evangelical Christians, for instance, consider the ACLU an enemy of religion because of the organization's staunch support of the division of church and state.
But Jim Webber, a retired real estate agent turned street preacher, is an ACLU supporter. When Las Vegas casinos tried to stop him from preaching outside their doors, the group launched a successful campaign that allowed Webber and other preachers to stay.
"The ACLU has been my guardian angel," he said. "They have been the ones that have provided the ability for me to stand on the street and talk with people about Jesus Christ."
'Liberty's Law Firm'
"I love the description that the ACLU is 'liberty's law firm,' " said ACLU President Nadine Strossen, "and, in fact, our client is always freedom for everybody -- equal rights for everybody."
Strossen says the group will defend anyone whose rights are violated -- even people who disagree with the ACLU, such as conservative minister Jerry Falwell and Christians in Virginia who wanted to perform baptisms in a public park.
"Every now and again, they get it right," said Tony Perkins, a Christian conservative lobbyist for the Family Research Council.
Perkins says these are exceptions to the rule.
"I think historically they've played a very subtle -- gradual but steady -- influence in eroding away the rich soil of America's spiritual heritage," he said.
In 85 years of battling for its version of the fundamental rights of every American -- the right to teach evolution in schools, to burn flags, to personal privacy in the post-9/11 era -- the ACLU has created both enemies and strange bedfellows.
Since many of the causes it champions are traditionally liberal -- such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage -- the group is often ridiculed by conservatives and glorified by liberals.
But the ACLU is supported by such firm conservatives as former White House independent investigator Kenneth Starr, former U.S. counterterrorism coordinator Oliver North, and National Rifle Association chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre.
"I'll stand with any organization that stands up for the First Amendment," said LaPierre.
The ACLU's relentless focus on individual freedoms, however, has led it to take stands that make even some backers wince.
It opposes metal detectors at airports, supports legalizing drugs and prostitution, and once supported the free-speech rights of the KKK.
"The point is: we will neutrally defend what we consider to be all civil liberties for all people -- no matter whose ox is gored," said Strossen.
The ACLU says its loyalty is to the Constitution, and it welcomes both its adversaries and unusual allies.
ABC News' Dan Harris filed this report for "World News Tonight."