WashingtonPost Front Page: "Ashcroft's Faith Plays Visible Role at Justice."

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From: Stephen D. Williams (sdw@lig.net)
Date: Mon May 14 2001 - 06:45:29 PDT

"Bible Sessions with Staffers Draw Questions and Criticism."

(The story is mysteriously missing from the site search engine, although
the link to yesterday's Tom Delay story is:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6825-2001May9.html )

The Bible study begins each day at 8 a.m. sharp, with Attorney General
John D. Ashcroft presiding. A group of employees gathers at the Main
Justice building in Washington, either in his personal office or a
conference room, to study Scripture and join Ashcroft in prayer.
 But within the massive Justice Department, with about 135,000 employees
worldwide, some who do not share Ashcroft's Pentecostal Christian
beliefs are discomfited by the daily prayer sessions -- particularly
because they are conducted by the nation's chief law enforcement
officer, entrusted with enforcing a Constitution that calls for the
separation of church and state.

"The purpose of the Department of Justice is to do the business of the
government, not to establish a religion," said a Justice attorney, who
like other critics was unwilling to be identified by name. "It strikes
me and a lot of others as offensive, disrespectful and unconstitutional.
. . . It at least blurs the line, and it probably crosses it."

"It's alienating," another lawyer said. "He's using public spaces to
have a personally meaningful event to which I would not be welcome, nor
would I feel welcome."
 "It is against my religion to impose my religion on people," Ashcroft
said in a recent speech.
 The federal government's "Guidelines on Religious Exercise and
Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace," issued in 1997 after
bipartisan negotiations, say supervisors and department heads must be
especially careful with religious activities or statements.

"Because supervisors have the power to hire, fire or promote, employees
may reasonably perceive their supervisors' religious expression as
coercive, even if it was not intended as such," the guidelines say.
"Therefore, supervisors should be careful to ensure that their
statements and actions are such that employees do not perceive any
coercion . . . and should, where necessary, take appropriate steps to
dispel such misperceptions."
 The morning devotionals are not the only sign that Ashcroft approaches
religion differently from his predecessor, Janet Reno, who ran a
strictly secular office. At a Black History Month celebration in
February, for example, Ashcroft prayed with a minister, who urged
Justice employees to join in.
 But advocates for the strict separation of church and state, as well as
some Justice employees, said Ashcroft is now in a far different position
from when he was a U.S. senator. As the leader of the nation's top law
enforcement body, they contend, he has a responsibility not to offend
employees of different faiths or test the limits of accepted guidelines.

Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's
Washington office, said Ashcroft is at least violating the spirit of the
federal rules on workplace prayer.

"Ashcroft has a right to pray in office, but he does not have a right to
implicitly or explicitly force others into praying with him," she said.
"Ashcroft's the chief defender of the nation's civil liberties. He can't
pretend to be just another citizen leading prayers."

A career Justice lawyer agrees, calling the devotionals "totally

"It feels extremely exclusive, that if you don't participate in that
kind of religion, that your career could be affected by it," the
attorney said. "If I had some political aspirations and wanted to work
for the front office and didn't have the same religious feelings as he
does, my non-participation could adversely affect me."

Others say the issue is muddier than that. Harvard Law School professor
Phillip B. Heymann, who was deputy attorney general in the Clinton
administration, said the prayer sessions are "not clearly wrong or
illegal. But the main practical worry is that anybody might think they
may be closer to the attorney general if they prayed with him, or more
able to influence him. . . . It's really sort of on the edge."

Abraham Foxman, chief of the Anti-Defamation League, said that he
understands the concerns of those who are uncomfortable, but that the
practice does not seem coercive.

"As long as there are no memos going out or no mandate, it's probably
fine. But there is a thin line," Foxman said.

"A lot of it depends on the individual involved. . . . What I know is
that John Ashcroft is a fair guy, and he will bend over backwards to
make everyone feel comfortable."


sdw@lig.net  http://sdw.st
Stephen D. Williams
43392 Wayside Cir,Ashburn,VA 20147-4622 703-724-0118W 703-995-0407Fax 

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