Imagine if the religious right's beloved "war on Christmas" was a year-round affair. Legions of lawyers ready to pounce on school and civic administrators, the persistent neon buzz of ACLU-paranoia in the air, Pat Robertson and the Bill O'Reilly Persecution Complex (nice band name...) pressuring corporate America to replace every "gesundheit" with a "God bless you." Now, imagine if the leaders of the effort weren't just the Jerry Falwell Admiration Society, but instead the full weight and force of the Department of Justice, training lawyers and enlisting supporters across the country ready to blow the whistle on any perceived slight to religion. Got the picture? It's the DOJ's new "First Freedoms Project" announced earlier this week by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, an effort to tout and enhance the Department's pursuit of religious discimination claims through the Civil Rights Divison.
Please don't misunderstand my obvious skepticism. Protecting Americans from discrimination on religious grounds is important, noble work. And a strongly enforced Free Exercise clause is essential to preserving our constitutional religious liberty rights. So why my expression of doubt? After all, hasn't the DOJ promoted minority religion claims as well, and said all the right things about protecting "people of all faiths"? Rev. Brent Walker, Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, says it well in his response to Gonzales's announcement:
[T]his administration's record on protecting religious freedom is mixed.Even then, and considering the source, I would still be willing to pay more tribute to their getting right half of the First Amendment's religious freedom protections, if this announcement was made at an interfaith meeting, or in assurance to a concerned religious minority. But, of course, that's not who Gonzales decided would be the perfect audience...
The First Amendment has two protections for religious freedom - prohibition on religious establishments and protection for free exercise of religion. 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.
US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sought out a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee as his venue to unveil the new religious liberty initiative of the Department of Justice during a speech in Nashville on Tuesday. The "First Freedom Project" touts the Administration's record arguing religious freedom claims through its Civil Rights Division, provides resources on free exercise rights, and a new "Report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom." The project also invites tips on potential discrimination the DOJ might investigate. Gonzales made special mention of this near the end of his talk:
[M]ake no mistake, I am here to ask the Southern Baptist Convention, and all of you in this room, for your help. The Department of Justice has many tools to protect religious freedoms in this country, and we are using them. But even with all of our passion and our dedication to this cause, we cannot do it alone.Associated Baptist Press has more.
I guess I'm not surprised that the Attorney General chose to speak to a group so full of free exercise fervor, and with such a dubious relationship to the Establishment Clause in recent years. After all, in his 3400-word speech Gonzales didn't once mention a commitment to protecting those of no faith from religious discrimination, and despite having sworn to defend all of the Constitution, did not use the occasion to make any substantive mention of one half of our precious first freedom: the one assuring that the Government will not enact an establishment of religion.
His general support of the free exercise rights of "people of all faiths," and his support of RLUIPA, which he mentioned explicitly, is a good thing. That having been said, I do wonder which other groups will get such a personal appeal for assistance. The concern is voiced well in the Tennessean's report:
If the First Freedom Project was meant to protect the religious freedoms of all Americans, why was it was announced only to a room full of Southern Baptists, asked Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.And I would think you'd want to emphasize, in some way, both sides of the constitutional balance that makes religious liberty a vibrant and powerful promise in America.'
"Why was just one particular religious community there?" she said. "Religious freedom is a right all of us hold dear...You'd think you'd want the rainbow of religious beliefs represented."
[cross-posted in part from the Baptist Joint Committee's blog]