updated 10/18/2008 9:09:49 PM ET 2008-10-19T01:09:49

The American Civil Liberties Union elected a new president on Saturday, choosing a constitutional law scholar who said she would reach out to African-Americans and to religious communities where the group has often been viewed more as foe than friend.

"We plan to reach out to communities where the ACLU is not well-known or not well-understood," said Brooklyn Law School professor Susan Herman, the organization's general counsel until the vote.

"There's a very widespread misimpression that the ACLU opposes religion" despite its efforts to protect rights to religious expression, Herman told The Associated Press, adding that she was surprised "there aren't more people in the African-American community that believe the ACLU is their organization."

Herman's selection gives the organization a new public face for the first time in nearly two decades. Nadine Strossen, the ACLU's longest-serving president and the first woman to hold the job, had led the group since 1991, overseeing a substantial rise in formal membership and national staff.

The ACLU became especially active following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, challenging U.S. government practices regarding espionage, prisoner interrogations and the detention of terrorism suspects.

Herman said the group would build on Strossen's legacy and vowed to continue work in those areas, especially if the federal government continues with its policies. "Until after the presidential election ... we don't really know what the context will be," she said.

Herman said she believed she was selected in part because of her ability to explain constitutional issues simply and because her background as a professor could help her reach out to a younger generation of potential members.

She said the group may also expand its presence internationally, becoming more involved in civil liberties violations overseas.

The organization has long sought to increase its reach at home, working during Strossen's tenure to expand in the center of the country, where both its activities and support had traditionally been weak.

When Strossen became the ACLU's president, the group's national reputation was mixed. Just three years earlier in 1988, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush scored easy political points against Democrat Michael Dukakis by writing him off as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU."

The group describes Herman as a Supreme Court expert with a focus on criminal procedure. She has written two books on civil liberties and appeared as a commentator on cable and network news shows.

Herman worked as an ACLU intern while still in law school and has since served on its board of directors, written Supreme Court briefs for the organization and lobbied Congress on the group's behalf.

Saturday's vote before the board followed Strossen's resignation, announced in May. Herman beat out Robert Remar, a business litigation lawyer based in Atlanta who has served as the ACLU's vice president since 2005.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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