When Ronald Reagan was first elected president, the American Civil Liberties Union gained a sizable number of new members because some citizens did not see him as a latter-day James Madison. When Edwin Meese described the ACLU as a "criminal's lobby," membership jumped again. And during George Bush's recent characterization of the ACLU as the internal Evil Empire, even more laggard libertarians rushed to join.

Basking in the righteousness of having such enemies, the ACLU is rather smug these days. After all, it continues to grow as the only large-scale national organization whose primary client is the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment. That makes it indispensable for, among others, both Democrats and Republicans, who are otherwise subject to arbitrary rulings by local town boards or voting registrars. Also among its clients are cops whose free speech rights have been manacled.

Yet, in some areas -- particularly its often bizarre notion of the separation of church and state -- the ACLU is in need of remedial education. For instance, there is this memorandum to the members of the education committee of the California state legislature last May. Written by the legislative director and legislative advocate of the California ACLU, the letter opposed a bill concerning sex education in the public schools:

"It is our position that teaching that monogamous heterosexual intercourse within marriage is a traditional American value {results in} an unconstitutional establishment of a religious doctrine in public schools. There are various religions which hold contrary beliefs with respect to marriage and monogamy. We believe {the bill} violates the First Amendment."

The ACLU's objection is to the assertion that this sort of intercourse within marriage is a traditional American value (one among many). It's not? And is it not possible for atheists to believe in -- and practice -- this old-time value?

The Northern and Southern California ACLU has tried to extend the Establishment Clause -- the state shall not support or prefer any or all religions -- in a way that makes Pat Buchanan's day. And in a way that should spur the national office of the ACLU to set up refresher courses for its affiliates in the religion clauses of the First Amendment. But that would be to admit imperfection, and this is often difficult for the ACLU because it is indeed a fount of so many good works.

Some years ago, an ACLU chapter in the state of Washington threatened to sue a school district because a production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" was about to be mounted in a high school there. Why was the ACLU so exercised? Because, said the affiliate, putting on that rock musical in a public school was a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. At the time, I asked the state affiliate if it would also sue to stop the performance in a public school of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." They may still be thinking that one over.

The ACLU's national board also fears that certain kinds of religious speech may be uncontrollably contagious. Consider its continuing opposition to the Equal Access Act passed by Congress in September 1984, recognizing that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause for the administration of a public school to sponsor religious activities. The bill also recognizes, however, that student-initiated religious speech does not offend the Establishment Clause. If a school, for instance, allows clubs to meet before or after classes -- the chess club, the French club, the Merle Haggard club -- then it should permit a club composed of students with religious interests.

At first, the Equal Access Act received the wary approval of the church-state specialist in the Washington office of the ACLU. He intended to keep watch on its implementation around the country to make sure the act was not abused, for example, by outside adults taking over the student religious club. The ACLU's national board, however, pilloried the act as a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause, and some of the affiliates have declared a Jihad against student religious clubs in public schools ever since.

Students -- I have heard ACLU board members say -- are too impressionable to know the difference between state-sponsored and student-initiated religious speech. Yet the ACLU believes devoutly that students are astute enough to run high school papers without giving principals such Draconian censorship powers as the Hazelwood decision did.

This lapse in logic is based on the conviction of the majority of the ACLU board that religious speech must never be allowed inside public schools -- lest, like an octopus, it eventually enfold the whole building and everyone in it.

The ACLU believes in the "public forum" doctrine: once clubs are permitted in a public school, the First Amendment forbids discrimination as to the speech content of any club. Except, says the ACLU, for student-initiated religious clubs. This is not only stereotyping public school students as dolts incapable of understanding the First Amendment, but the policy also reveals that the ACLU has a formidable anti-free-speech enemy within.