Imagine if the religious right's beloved "war on Christmas" was a year-round affair. Legions of lawyers ready to pounce on school and civic administrators, the persistent neon buzz of ACLU-paranoia in the air, Pat Robertson and the Bill O'Reilly Persecution Complex (nice band name...) pressuring corporate America to replace every "gesundheit" with a "God bless you." Now, imagine if the leaders of the effort weren't just the Jerry Falwell Admiration Society, but instead the full weight and force of the Department of Justice, training lawyers and enlisting supporters across the country ready to blow the whistle on any perceived slight to religion. Got the picture? It's the DOJ's new "First Freedoms Project" announced earlier this week by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, an effort to tout and enhance the Department's pursuit of religious discimination claims through the Civil Rights Divison.
Please don't misunderstand my obvious skepticism. Protecting Americans from discrimination on religious grounds is important, noble work. And a strongly enforced Free Exercise clause is essential to preserving our constitutional religious liberty rights. So why my expression of doubt? After all, hasn't the DOJ promoted minority religion claims as well, and said all the right things about protecting "people of all faiths"? Rev. Brent Walker, Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, says it well in his response to Gonzales's announcement:
[T]his administration's record on protecting religious freedom is mixed.
The First Amendment has two protections for religious freedom - prohibition on religious establishments and protection for free exercise of religion. The administration has often ignored the importance of the no establishment principle by supporting attempts of governments to endorse a religious message, using tax dollars to fund pervasively religious organizations, allowing religious discrimination in hiring for federally funded projects, and going to the Supreme Court to cut back on the rights of citizens to challenge such practices.
Even then, and considering the source, I would still be willing to pay more tribute to their getting right half of the First Amendment's religious freedom protections, if this announcement was made at an interfaith meeting, or in assurance to a concerned religious minority. But, of course, that's not who Gonzales decided would be the perfect audience... Read on.