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defending the First Amendment against the Christian right ...

Jews On First!

... because if Jews don't speak out, they'll think we don't mind

Attorney General's "First Freedom" program cloaks lawyering for the Christian right

Gonzales rolls out "religious freedom" initiative for Southern Baptist Convention, Christian Broadcasting Network

by Jane Hunter, JewsOnFirst.org, February 27, 2007

"People should not be forced to choose between their faiths and their jobs..."
But if you are forced to choose, the Justice Department might side with your boss

by Jane Hunter, JewsOnFirst.org, February 27, 2007

This afternoon, Department of Justice spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson responded by email to my telephone call requesting comment on the First Freedom program. Our email exchange follows, starting with my initial question to her.

JH: 1. On page 18 of the First Freedom report, it says "People should be hired or not hired because of their skills and merit, not because of their faith. And people should not be forced to choose between their faiths and their jobs." Yet, the DOJ defended the Salvation Army when it made a Jewish employee's continued employment conditional on signing a Christian credo. How does the DOJ explain this?

2. Will the DOJ defend other organizations that insist that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or atheists sign a Christian credo as a condition of employment?

You are welcome to respond by email or by phone.

CM: Hi Jane,

Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the case you reference involving the Salvation Army - I assume that the government's participation was in the form of an amicus brief.

On page 13 of the report - right below the quote you reference - it says that Section 702 of Title VII protects the independence and autonomy of religious institutions by permitting them to consider religion in hiring decisions.

Based on this portion of the statute, the Department's role in the case you reference would be entirely consistent with the law.

The Department has a strong record of defending the religious rights of individuals of every religion, and we will continue to enforce the laws that ensure that religious rights are protected.

Thanks,
Cynthia

JH: Thank you, Cynthia,

To follow up, if you don't mind:

The employee who sued in the Salvation Army case (mentioned in the First Freedom Report) was a social worker working in a government funded social service program. She had worked there for many years when they fired her, a Jew, for not signing a Christian profession of faith.

Knowing that, would you care to revise your comment?

CM: Hi Jane,

I think that you are talking about Lown v. the Salvation Army - and an explanation of the Department's action and legal argument in that case is clearly laid out. As the report says, the Division also brings cases to ensure that Title VII is properly interpreted. Again, I would cite Section 702 of Title VII protects the independence and autonomy of religious institutions by permitting them to consider religion in hiring decisions.

The report highlights many cases in which the religious rights of individuals, including those of the Jewish faith, have been defended by the Department. From 2001-2006, the Civil Rights Division's record of enforcement has increased significantly.

Thanks,
Cynthia

JH: Thank you again, Cynthia

However, Ms Lown wasn't being hired. She was fired after many years employment, for declining to sign a Christian profession of faith.

Wouldn't you think, then, that her case would fit more clearly with the cases of victims of religious discrimination which the Division defended?

I appreciate your consideration,
Jane

CM: Hi Jane,

I'm happy to track down and send you a copy of the court's decision in this case, which supports an existing Congressionally-passed statute signed into law during the Johnson Administration.

Thanks,
Cynthia

JH: Thank you, Cynthia, but I've seen the decision, consider it unfortunate (as do many advocates of church-state separation), and have wondered whether the DOJ's brief encouraged the decision.

Your responses, albeit generous, leave me with conclusion that if my private sector employer interferes with my religious observance, the DOJ would go to bat for me. But if I, a Jew, am asked by my long-time social service agency employer to sign onto a belief in Jesus Christ as a condition of keeping my job, the Justice Department would help that employer, not me.

That raises another question: All the cases in the First Freedom Report in which the Division went to bat for a party wishing to impose its religious beliefs on fellow citizens in the public (or publicly funded) square involve right-wing Christian groups wishing to impose their doctrines (inappropriately, many would say). Would the Civil Rights Division go to court for a Jewish or a Muslim social service agency that required its long-time Christian employees to sign a Jewish or Muslim credo, in effect disavowing their faith in Jesus?

Thanks,
Jane

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales launched a religious liberties campaign called First Freedom last week. It looked to us like a vehicle for the Justice Department to provide legal support for the Christian right's attacks on church-state separation. Gonzales' exclusive presentation of the First Freedom program to the Southern Baptist Convention and Pat Robertson's 700 Club underscored that impression. A series of email exchanges with a department spokeswoman this afternoon were hardly reassuring.

First Freedom is a project of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ). Its freestanding website promises an agressive outreach to religious audiences:

Initiation of a series of regional seminars to be held around the country to educate religious, civil rights, and community leaders, attorneys, government officials, and other interested citizens about the laws protecting religious freedom enforced by the Department of Justice and how to file complaints.

A newly issued report on the website, Report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom: Fiscal Years 2001-2006, lists a number of cases where the division protected citizens against religious discrimination. But sprinkled among the legitimate cases involving religious harassment are cases where the Justice Department has supported (often with amicus briefs) religious discrimination and incursions of fundamentalist Christianity into the public square.

Among those cases are the Salvation Army's firing of a social worker for a government-funded social service program when she refused to sign a Christian statement of belief. That case, Lown v. Salvation Army, is the focus of JewsOnFirst's exchange with the DOJ (see sidebar).

Attorney General Gonzales introduced the initiative to viewers of Pat Robertson's 700 Club television show and to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. A reporter for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network accompanied Gonzales on his plane and interviewed him in flight.

Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said his organization found it "unsettling that only a single denomination, representing a fraction of the rich diversity of religious life of America, was selected to receive the attorney general's personal presentation."

In a statement released by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Rev. Barry Lynn, the group's executive director, said "it seems clear this new initiative has more to do with keeping the administration’s Religious Right allies happy than advancing a great constitutional principle."

Lynn also said: "Expecting the Bush administration to defend religious liberty is a little like asking Col. Sanders to babysit your pet chicken."

Gonzales' prepared remarks to the Baptist committee were cautious, but coded for his audience. "Why should it be permissible for an employee standing around the water cooler to declare that 'Tiger Woods is God,' but a firing offense for him to say 'Jesus is Lord?'" demanded Gonzales. "These are the kinds of contradictions we are trying to address."

The contact for the First Freedom program is Eric Treene, whose title in the DOJ is special counsel for religious discrimination. According to a National Public Radio report last year, Treene has drawn criticism for siding with right-wing evangelical Christians seeking to promote their religion in the public sphere.




Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at the Meeting of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention

NASHVILLE, Feb. 20 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Following are the prepared remarks of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at the meeting of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention:

Good afternoon. Thank you Doctor Chapman.

Most Americans believe in God.

And so they naturally understand and accept the limitations and imperfections that are a part of being human.

Perhaps because of our frailties, most of us yearn for heroes, we are attracted to and inspired by leaders who perform extraordinary deeds or at least inspire others in worthy causes. I believe this is why many Americans share a natural curiosity -- a fascination -- about the President of the United States, the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. There may be some here who know the President as well or better than I do, but for those who do not, let me just say that there are very few individuals as strong in their faith as George W. Bush. Continue.

Wanted: True Believers Only
Salvation Army bias case may transform hiring at faith-based charities getting government funds

Larry Cohler-Esses, The Jewish Week (New York), November 18, 2005

Cohler-Esses writes: "Anne Lown, a Jewish woman from Boston, had worked nearly 25 years for the Salvation Army’s children’s services arm in New York when she was thrust into the world of faith-based initiatives.

"Lown, associate director of the local Salvation Army’s government-funded Social Services for Children, was one of 18 employees to leave or be dismissed in 2003-04 for allegedly refusing to sign forms swearing loyalty to the group’s Christian principles." Click here for the report.

Federal Religious Discrimination Lawyer Criticized

by Ari Shapiro, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, May 31, 2006

Since 2003 the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has had a Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination. The division does not have comparable special counsels for racial, age or gender discrimination. Eric Treene, who occupies the post, has frequently sided with right-wing evangelical Christians seeking to promote their religion in the public sphere. One example is DOJ's support of the Salvation Army against employees doing federally funded work whom it forced to sign a religious statement. According to NPR, Treene has several times taken on cases suggested by the religious right Liberty Legal Institute in Texas. Hiram Sasser, Liberty's litigation director, said that in most instances where Treene collaborated, the defendant ended up settling the case, "doing the right thing." Click here for the audio link.

New U.S. religious liberties project launched, U.S. Attorney General announces to Southern Baptists

By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean, February 20, 2007

The U.S. will establish a new Religious Freedom Task Force and step up enforcement efforts as part of an expanded push to protect against religious discrimination, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez announced today in Nashville at a gathering of Southern Baptist leaders.

The Department of Justice’s "First Freedom Project" will review religious discrimination complaints, hold seminars to educate religious leaders about how to file complaints and launch a Web site with information on religious liberty laws, Gonzalez announced. Continue.

An Interview with Eric W. Treene, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice

The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, February 27, 2007

Eric W. Treene is special counsel for religious discrimination at the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. In this position created in 2002, Treene coordinates religious cases in areas of education, employment, housing, public accommodations, public facilities, zoning and land use, and prisons. He also coordinates religious bias crime prosecutions, including attacks and threats against houses of worship.

The department released a report last week showing an increase since 2001 in its pursuit of religious liberty cases, and announced an expansion of its enforcement of such cases.

Prior to joining the Justice Department, Treene was litigation director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an interfaith public interest law firm in Washington, D.C. dedicated to protecting the free expression of faith. He is a graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, and a former law clerk to Chief Judge John M. Walker, Jr. of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He is the author of a number of articles about the First Amendment. Continue.

National Council of Churches suggests U.S. attorney general cast interfaith net on religious freedom plan
NCC suggests U.S. attorney general cast interfaith net on religious freedom plan

News release, National Council of Churches, February 22, 2007

[NCC News]New York City, February 22, 2007 -- The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA welcomed a new U.S. government initiative on religious discrimination but expressed concern at its narrow, single denominational introduction.

"We are pleased to see the Bush Administration focus renewed interest on religious freedom," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, NCC's general secretary, in a statement issued today. Religious liberty is "a topic that has found deep and continuing concern within the National Council of Churches since its founding more than 50 years ago," he said.

"We do find it unsettling," says Edgar's statement, "that only a single denomination, representing a fraction of the rich diversity of religious life of America, was selected to receive the attorney general's personal presentation. It would seem more appropriate had he made such an appearance before an ecumenical or interfaith gathering, symbolically underlining the vision of a nation in which the law plays no favorites but sees all faiths as equal before the Constitution." Continue.

Americans United Slams Justice Department 'First Freedom Project' For Hypocrisy
Effort Is Another Attempt By The Bush Administration To Undercut Church-State Separation, Placate Religious Right, Says AU's Lynn

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, February 22, 2007

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday unveiled an expanded project allegedly designed to protect religious liberty, an effort that, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, reeks of hypocrisy.

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

DOJ report says department has defended religious liberties

By Erin Roach, Baptist Press, February 21, 2007

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--In a 43-page document released by the U.S. Department of Justice Feb. 20, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says the department takes seriously the protection of religious freedom and has worked vigorously during the Bush administration to protect them.

“Many came to America precisely because of the recognition of religious liberty and the protection of this most basic of human rights,” the report, released in conjunction with the attorney general’s visit to the Southern Baptist Convention Building in Nashville, Tenn., says. The document was labeled “Report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom: Fiscal Years 2001-2006.” Continue.

AG Moves to Protect Religious Freedom

CBN News, February 21, 2007

Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network traveled with Attorney General Gonzales to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville and shows clips of Gonzales speaking to the denomination's executive committee (which appears to be comprised of white men). Click here.

EXCLUSIVE: A Candid Talk with Atty. Gen. Gonzales

By Melissa Charbonneau, CBN News, February 22, 2007

CBNNews.com - In an exclusive interview this week, Melissa Charbonneau talked with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the launch of a new Justice Department project to protect religious liberty, creating a religious liberty task force, and launching a new website, and enforcing anti-discrimination laws already on the books. Continue to a list of video links on the CBN website.