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
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.