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

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.”

As part of the new initiative, dubbed the “First Freedom Project,” Gonzales unveiled a 43-page report detailing the department’s intervention in several cases dealing with religion over the past six years. He vowed that the department would do even more in this arena.

Gonzales announced the new effort during a Feb. 20 speech before the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.

AU’s Lynn said the report documents the administration’s skewed views on religion and government.

For example, Lynn noted that the report speaks frequently about the Justice Department’s commitment to protecting Americans from religious discrimination in the workplace. A few pages later, however, it recounts how the department defended the Salvation Army’s supposed right to take taxpayers’ money to run public social services and still fire staff people who do not agree with its fundamentalist dogma.

Observed Lynn, “Thanks to the Justice Department, the Salvation Army could literally place newspaper ads reading, ‘Help Wanted for Government-Funded Jobs: No Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Liberal Christians, Atheists Or Gays Need Apply,’ and this would be perfectly acceptable to Gonzales. This is a perverse way of supposedly defending our religious freedom rights.”

Lynn also noted that the Justice Department filed a brief in a Florida case arguing that banning religious school vouchers would somehow violate the U.S. Constitution a claim the Supreme Court has never endorsed.

Forcing Florida taxpayers to support religious schools, in fact, would violate their right to support only the religious institutions of their choice, Lynn said.

The First Freedom Project has been run by Eric Treene, an attorney who was formerly employed at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a group that works to undermine the separation of church and state.

Lynn said Gonzales’ manner of promoting the new initiative is telling. It was unveiled before the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, an ultra-conservative religious denomination aligned with the Bush administration, and Gonzales granted an exclusive interview to TV preacher Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” to promote the initiative.

“Religious liberty is for everyone,” said Lynn. “but 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.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.