First Freedom Fraud: Bush Administration's Religious Liberty Project Draws Fire from Civil Liberties and Civil Rights Leaders

Article excerpt

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sounded an earnest note when championing religious freedom with a friendly audience in Nashville, Tenn.

On Feb. 20, Gonzales unveiled a "First Freedom Project" before a Southern Baptist Convention executive committee meeting as an aggressive effort by the Bush administration to ensure religious liberties for all Americans.

"Nothing," said Gonzales, "defines us more as a nation--and differentiates us more from the extremists who are our enemies--than our respect for religious freedom.... So I would like to talk with you today about what the Department of Justice has done to protect religious freedom and religious liberty, and what we will be doing in the future."

But Gonzales' claims that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is dedicated to protecting religious freedom ring hollow when looked at in context of the administration's record on church-state issues.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as well as other public interest groups, noted that the Bush administration, in reality, has proved a stubborn backer of the Religious Right agenda. Regardless of its claims to the contrary, the DOJ has shown more concern for dismantling the wall of separation between church and state than protecting the First Amendment.

"Expecting the Bush administration to defend religious liberty is a little like asking Col. Sanders to babysit your pet chicken," suggested Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "This administration has repeatedly worked to destroy true religious freedom by merging church and state."

The Rev. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance, agreed, calling the Justice Department's religion initiative "hypocritical."

"No administration in our history," said Gaddy, "has trampled the First Amendment more than the Bush administration,'

As a part of the DOJ initiative, Gonzales announced plans to create a department-wide task force on religious liberty law enforcement, hold a series of regional training seminars, launch a new Web site (www.firstfreedom.gov) and distribute informational literature to religious and other groups about filing religious liberty complaints.

Gonzales also released a "Report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom." The 43-page document, according to its critics, reveals the administration's cramped views.

For example, the DOJ report notes that federal law prohibits both public and private employers from discriminating against employees based on their religious beliefs.

During his speech before the Baptist leaders, Gonzales pointed out that his department is "charged under the Civil Rights Act to protect against discrimination in public and private employment."

Gonzales continued, "Included in this, of course, is the requirement that employers make an effort to accommodate the religious practices of their employees. And it also embraces the premise that people deserve to be hired or not hired based on their qualifications, not on their faith."

The DOJ report, however, trumpets the Civil Rights Division's defense of the Salvation Army's supposed right to take taxpayers' money to run public social services and still fire staff people who do not agree with its fundamentalist dogma.

In 2004, several former employees of the Salvation Army's Social Service for Children division sued the religious organization charging that they were forced out of their publicly funded social service jobs after they disagreed with the organization's religious policies, including requirements to divulge their faith. The lawsuit argued that the Salvation Army's employment practice created a religiously hostile environment for many employees and resulted in the unlawful firings of several professional employees.

The DOJ jumped right into the action, on the side of the Salvation Army's alleged right to discriminate. …