Attorney General Gonzales Deputizes the Southern Baptist Convention in New Initiative [UPDATED]
DonByrd printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 10:47:11 AM EST
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.

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.

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... Read on.
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.

"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."

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.

[UPDATE: I assume this new commitment means the Justice Department would listen to the public school experience of Matthew LaClair in Kearny, NJ. Maybe someone should file a complaint. Just a thought.]

[cross-posted in part from the Baptist Joint Committee's blog]

[ editor : for a somewhat related (not directly though) and little noticed story, see New National Program to "temporarily transform churches into courthouses" ]




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I'm flabbergasted.

This seems insane and viciously partisan on the part of US Attorney General Gonzalez.

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 10:58:20 AM EST

He definitely picked the worst way to sell what could have been (in a different universe) a reasonable initiative. In itself, it doesn't sound so bad: enforce civil rights against religious discrimination. (I don't think even Jim Wallis would claim there are people out there against that.)But considering the other ongoing efforts to gut the Establishment Clause, this comes across as just another piece in the puzzle to frame every dispute as a free exercise violation. Removing that element of protection as they are attempting from all sides -- in legislation (PERA), in courts (Hein case) and now in the Executive branch through the DOJ by emphasizing only free exercise enforcement -- is dangerous for the religious freedom of all of us.

by DonByrd on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 11:22:55 AM EST
Parent
From late last October, 2006, on the upcoming 8 city  ( or so ) Federal/US Marshals' pilot program this summer for "Church Courts" ?

http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/10/29/05334/588

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 12:49:35 PM EST
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I would sure like to be a fly on the wall in one of those attorney training seminars--what are they training them to do exactly?

by DonByrd on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 11:07:26 AM EST
Or find someone who could ?

I'm sure we could, and if the DOJ won't allow participation, then that's a story in itself.

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 12:50:50 PM EST
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Admirable, that is, if you can

A majority of them believe they have the Truth.  They're sick and tired of the confusion and constraint that that is inflicted on an absolutist ideology, not so much by tolerance, not so much by reason, but by the idea that other people who fervently believe that what they know to be The Truth is A Picnic Basket Full of Cow Pies, and that's just not tolerable.

They believe they have left unenforced the fundamental laws of the universe (news to me that they need enforcing), and are stepping up to do their duty.

The rest?  Opportunistic freaks with an addiction to the adrenaline and endorphin rush that comes with proximity to and participation in unquestioned power.

I suspect there is some overlap.

by stealthbadger on Fri Feb 23, 2007 at 09:01:27 AM EST
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That first sentence fell to fumblefingers.

Admirable if you can set aside the horrifying moral tunnel-vision behind it.

by stealthbadger on Fri Feb 23, 2007 at 09:02:34 AM EST
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Apologies if this annoys anyone.  As a rule I don't care for spelling corrections as contributions to comment threads, but the important exception is for the names of people, especially when they're the subject of a post, and double especially when they're in the post title.

The last thing I'd want is for anyone to be prevented from dealing with the serious criticism of this post by using the spelling error as an excuse to dismiss it (as 'lack of respect for the Attorney General' etc. etc.).

by Nell on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 12:58:44 PM EST

Details matter.

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 01:17:40 PM EST
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Don't know how that got in my head incorrectly but it sure did. I agree - it is very important.

by DonByrd on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 01:44:10 PM EST
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That what friends ( and editors ) are for.

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 01:56:15 PM EST
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...is the right of theocons to proselitize in the Pentagon, the Air Force Academy (which he attended but did not graduate from) and other US Government venues.

The last thing he gives a damn about is protecting freedoms of any kind.

Notice the term First Freedom as an alternative to the First Amendment.

Jerk.

His name should be changed to Abu (as in Abu Grahib) Guantanamo for all I care.

by Shockwave on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 05:37:39 PM EST


- along with alleged disrespect to the Egyptian president - just got a young Egyptian blogger a four-year jail sentence (details at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6385849.stm ).

It's hard not to imagine the Bush-Cheney regime holding up his case as an ideal to be emulated, to the cheers of hundreds of eager hyperchristian lawyers, and whirring sounds from the graves of every signer of the US Constitution.

by Pierce R Butler on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 11:06:22 PM EST



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