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,, 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 below).

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.

"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,, 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.


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.


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,

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.


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?


TOPIC: Church-State Separation