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Speech by Attorney General Sparks Church-State Furor

The Bush administration is being accused of politicizing civil rights enforcement after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales used a major address in front of Christian allies to unveil the Justice Department’s stepped-up plan for defending religious liberties.

Gonzales presented the new initiative, dubbed the First Freedoms Project, in a February 20 speech in Nashville, Tenn., to the Southern Baptist Convention. The move was quickly criticized as “unsettling” by the Reverend Bob Edgar, a liberal critic of the administration and general secretary of the 45-million member National Council of Churches.

More broadly, critics of the administration, including civil liberties groups, say that the attorney general’s overture to religious conservatives is only the latest example of the politicization of the Justice Department, the executive department charged with enforcing the country’s civil rights laws. In recent weeks, the Justice Department has also come under fire for dismissing seven U.S. Attorneys over the past year, including a top federal prosecutor in Arkansas who the department acknowledged was pushed aside in favor of a former aide to presidential advisor Karl Rove.

Democratic leaders in Congress are vowing to use their newfound majority status to increase oversight of the Justice Department’s activities.

“Sadly, in recent years, I have grown more concerned about the division’s abysmal record of enforcing core civil rights protections for minorities,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a statement released to the Forward this week. “We have asked the Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights questions about the Department’s enforcement of these laws, but have yet to receive the satisfactory answers we need to conduct our constitutionally mandated oversight role.”

Under Gonzales, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has boosted its work in the area of religious liberties. According to a report released by the department last week, the enforcement of protections against religious discrimination in education has risen under the Bush administration, with 82 cases reviewed and 40 investigations opened from 2001 to 2006, up from one review and no investigations from 1995 to 2000.

Jewish groups have lauded the department’s robust pursuit of religious discrimination cases, particularly in the area of employment, and its defense of a federal statue passed in 2000 that provides stronger protection for religious freedom in land use and prison contexts.

The First Freedoms Project will showcase the department’s focus on religious liberties through a series of regional training seminars for government officials and community leaders, and the launching of a new Web site to provide information about the department’s First Amendment work. In conjunction with last week’s announcement of the new program, the department released a 43-page report touting its efforts over the past six years to protect religious freedoms.

In response to the publicity blitz, liberal church-state watchdogs condemned the Justice Department for failing to defend the separation of church and state, even as it vigorously fights for the expansion of the free expression of religion in the public square.

“It’s very ironic that the Justice Department claims to be protecting Americans from religiously based discrimination when, in fact, they’re doing just the opposite,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The Justice Department has insisted, for example, that religious groups should have the right to take public tax money through the faith-based initiative, and then hire or fire people based on their religion or lifestyle.”

The Justice Department stoked considerable controversy when it filed a brief on behalf of the Salvation Army and New York State and City officials who were sued in 2004 by current and former employees charging that the group’s religious criteria in staffing decisions coupled with its receipt of taxpayer money violated the Establishment Clause.

Steven Freeman, director of legal affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, said that the ADL welcomes the Justice Department’s work on free exercise cases but has been “troubled” by the department’s positions in a number of church-state fights, including its stance in the Salvation Army case. Freeman also expressed concern over what critics describe as the Justice Department’s lackluster response to allegations of improper proselytizing at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Other civil liberties groups say that the Justice Department’s focus on religious rights has come at the expense of its work on behalf of other groups that are discriminated against, including women and minorities.

“There is still a big problem with racial discrimination issues, gender discrimination issues, and there is a belief that the resources that should normally be used to look at those kinds of issues are being diverted elsewhere,” said Hilary Shelton, Washington director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “That is not to suggest that there aren’t real problems with religious discrimination, and certainly the Justice Department should be investigating cases along those lines, as well. But they are investigating fewer [racial discrimination] cases, and they’re actually pursuing fewer cases as they move from the investigatory phase to the phase of prosecution or even settlement.”

Julie Fernandes, senior counsel of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, told the Forward that over the past six years, the administration has brought only five cases under section two of the Voting Rights Act, the section that protects minority representation. This number is down from 10 or 12 per year during the Clinton administration.

According to testimony given by Rep. Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, at a hearing held by the NAACP last summer, the Justice Department has been pursuing fewer cases in the areas of employment and housing discrimination, and has taken on very few of the “pattern or practice cases” that target widespread discriminatory behavior.

A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to the Forward’s request for information.


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