Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's decision to launch a new Justice Department "First Freedom Project" during a recent meeting of Southern Baptist leaders riled a number of advocates of church-state separation.
"Nothing defines us more as a nation and differentiates us more from the extremists who are our enemies than our respect for religious freedom," said Gonzales in his February 20 speech in Nashville to the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the church bodies most supportive of the Bush administration. The project will include efforts to inform government officials, employers and ordinary Americans about their religious-liberty rights.
The department also released a 43-page report touting its record, under President Bush, in defending religious freedom. Gonzales and the report implied that the Justice Department's record on prosecuting religious-discrimination cases is significantly stronger under Bush than it was under former president Bill Clinton.
But several religious-liberty experts said Bush's record on the issue has been mixed at best.
Brent Walker, executive director of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that the First Amendment covers two aspects of religious freedom that are inextricably linked to each other.
"The First Amendment has two protections for religious freedom--prohibition on religious establishments and protection for free exercise of religion," Walker said. "The administration has often ignored the importance of the no-establishment principle by supporting attempts of governments to endorse a religious message, using tax dollars to fund pervasively religious organizations, allowing religious discrimination in hiring for federally funded projects, and going to the Supreme Court to cut back on the rights of citizens to challenge such practices."
Walker also noted that Bush's record on free-exercise protections is "not perfect." He pointed to a Supreme Court case last year in which the administration attempted to limit a small religious sect's ability to use hallucinogenic tea for sacramental purposes. A unanimous Supreme Court rejected the administration's position.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State went further, releasing a statement February 22 saying that Gonzales's announcement "reeks of hypocrisy." It called attention to actions the Justice Department touts as religious-freedom successes, but which are actually controversial in that field. …