Feb. 28, 2007 – As the White House touts efforts to protect Americans from religious discrimination, advocates of church-state separation say the Bush administration is supporting organizations and policies that trample religious freedom.
At a conference of the Southern Baptist Convention last Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the First Freedom Project, a White House initiative to "strengthen and preserve religious liberty" in the United States. Gonzales promised the leaders of the conservative Christian group that the administration was committed to defending religious people from discriminatory policies â€“ like bans on singing Christian hymnals at a community center, or zoning laws restricting the expansion of a local church.
But the organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has blasted the initiative. The group says a report publicized along with the initiative exposes the Justice Departmentâ€™s biased enforcement of civil rights to advance a conservative Christian agenda. The report documents the Departmentâ€™s actions on religious-discrimination since 2001.
In one case cited in the report, government attorneys investigated a Texas Tech University biology professor who stated on his website that he would only write medical-school recommendation letters for students who affirmed a belief in evolution. Rather than face allegations that some students were "excluded from higher educational opportunities because of their religious beliefs," the professor eventually agreed only to require that students explain, but not affirm the validity of, evolutionary theory.
Critics say the administration's record on "religious freedom" shows biased enforcement of civil rights to advance a conservative Christian agenda.
The report also highlights the Justice Departmentâ€™s defense of a controversial school-voucher plan in Florida. In a lawsuit challenging the program, which would enable students to transfer from substandard public schools to supposedly superior private ones, the government argued in a brief that it would be unconstitutional to block funds from being used for religious schools. Several civil-liberties groups have argued that publicly financing church-affiliated schools would violate a state ban on using taxpayer dollars to support religious institutions.
The Justice Department similarly intervened in a lawsuit against the Salvation Armyâ€™s hiring policies for government-funded positions. Government attorneys filed a brief affirming the Christian charityâ€™s power to "preserve its character and identity as a religious organization" by hiring people based on religion, provided that the taxpayer-funded work was "secular in nature."
Americans United spokesperson Rob Boston said the administrationâ€™s claimed victories for religious freedom reveal a tendency "to intervene in certain situations mainly to appease the Religious Right." He added that the report may be ignoring other perspectives that complicate the discrimination issue â€“ such as job applicants rejected because of their beliefs in the Salvation Army case, or people who feel that religion is being imposed on them when worship is promoted in public spaces.
Americans United, as well as religious leaders who advocate for strong church-state separation, say the First Freedom Project folds into a broader agenda of mingling faith with politics. The White Houseâ€™s promotion of "faith-based initiatives," for example, has drawn criticism for dramatically expanding government funding for charity programs run by churches and other religious groups.
In a statement responding to the launch of the initiative, Reverend Brent Walker, director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, accused the administration of "supporting attempts of governments to endorse a religious message." Walker argued, "Religious liberty is most secure when government stays neutral toward religion."
Some critics point to evidence that the administration itself has actively impinged on religious freedom by targeting Muslims in supposed anti-terrorism campaigns.
The report does document various government actions against anti-Muslim discrimination. For instance, the government sided with sixth-grader Nashala Hearn, who sued her Oklahoma school for preventing her from wearing a religious head covering in 2003.
But Boston of Americans United said the Justice Department is ignoring its own role in promoting more systematic discrimination.
Referring to controversial post-9/11 law-enforcement tactics â€“ like tracking Muslims through "special registration" surveillance programs â€“ Boston said, "When theyâ€™re engaging in religious profiling, it does raise the question of whether there are more serious issues of religious discrimination that are not being addressed â€“ instead of just the right of a girl in Oklahoma to wear a head scarf."
Ibrahim Hooper, with the national advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that "on strictly religious matters," the government has responded well to the Muslim communityâ€™s complaints of local discrimination. But he told TNS the administration has been less willing to tackle "areas of religious rights as they overlap with civil liberties and political discourse."
More complex bias issues arise, Hooper noted, "when Muslims are engaged in political activism, political empowerment, social activism â€“ that donâ€™t necessarily have much to do with theology or religious practice." As previously reported by TNS, the Justice Department has spearheaded investigations of Muslims involved in charity and antiwar activities.
"Maybe the strictly religious field is easier to deal with; everybody can agree that everyone should have freedom to practice their faith," Hooper said. "Maybe itâ€™s more difficult to agree on having political dissent."