- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

A liberal religious group yesterday urged a Senate panel to question Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft over whether his deep Christian faith might make him intolerant of "faith groups that he clearly judges to be wrong and in need of correction."
The Interfaith Alliance, founded in 1994 with Democratic Party seed money, wants the Senate Judiciary Committee to use a confirmation hearing today to find out whether Mr. Ashcroft would allow Christianity to be imposed on public institutions at the expense of other faiths.
"Religion in the public square must respect the rights of others to practice faith without imposing one ideology or belief," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and executive director of the group.
"He would be charged with upholding and fully enforcing the constitutional rights and liberties of faith groups that he clearly judges to be wrong and in need of correction."
Mr. Gaddy did not say which faiths Mr. Ashcroft believes are wrong and need correction.
The latest charge of intolerance follows a deluge of accusations that Mr. Ashcroft is a racist. Yesterday, the brother of slain civil-rights leader Medgar Evers spoke out on the nominee's behalf.
"The charges of racism seem to me to be nothing more than a political ploy to fan the flames of racial division in our country," Charles Evers wrote in a letter to Judiciary Committee members Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Orrin G. Hatch.
"A look at Senator Ashcroft's record as Governor of Missouri and as a United States Senator shows that he voted to confirm 23 of 26 African American judicial appointments. He signed into law a state holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and fought to save Lincoln University.
"I sincerely urge you to join me in supporting Senator Ashcroft's confirmation for Attorney General," wrote Mr. Evers, former mayor of Fayette, Miss.
Also coming to Mr. Ashcroft's defense yesterday was the Federation of Faith-Based Organizations, a coalition of religious groups. More than 100 representatives of the groups will hold a Capitol Hill rally at 11:30 this morning.
"The groups support Senator Ashcroft's nomination because he has been the foremost champion of the role of faith-based service providers in addressing welfare reform and other societal problems," the federation said in a press release.
Supporters of Mr. Ashcroft have said the warning issued by the Interfaith Alliance is "dangerously close" to imposing a religious test on him, which is forbidden by the Constitution. But the alliance said it is not probing anyone's personal faith.
"I applaud the deep faith convictions of our leaders," said alliance board member Rabbi Jack Moline, who regrets that some people have made "sport" of Mr. Ashcroft's Pentecostal faith as a member of the Assemblies of God church.
The Office of Attorney General does not dictate religious practices in the United States but may file opinions in court cases, prosecute violations of federal church-state law and probe religious groups suspected of criminal activity.
The office cannot decree official religious practice, "but it sure packs a punch," said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, also speaking at the alliance press conference.
Mr. Walker expressed concerns that Mr. Ashcroft's initiation of the "charitable choice" provision in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act suggests he may support an expanded use of federal dollars by religious groups that want to provide welfare services.
Both President-elect George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore supported the charitable choice principle in their campaigns.
Mr. Walker said, however, that despite this disagreement on how to apply the Constitution's no "establishment" of religion clause, he agrees with Mr. Ashcroft on the need for "free exercise" of religion.
The interfaith group, which was founded to combat the so-called "religious right," also presented Muslim, Sikh and Jain concerns.
The alliance has represented religious leaders in Democratic and liberal Republican circles who complained that conservatives alone were using religion in electoral politics.
In response, the alliance called for interfaith voter education and warned church leaders against using the typically pro-Republican voter guides distributed by the Christian Coalition. It also has urged candidates to sign a Pledge to Civility in Political Campaigns, a vow not to demonize opponents on religious grounds.
During the campaign, the alliance sent a letter to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, lauding his overt religious faith but "cautioning against the use of that language for political purpose," Mr. Gaddy said in an interview.
Mr. Gaddy, who noted that Mr. Bush signed the civility pledge with "an accompanying letter [that] praised our work in encouraging civil debate," said the alliance does not oppose the Ashcroft nomination unless the nominee does not answer the tough questions satisfactorily.
The alliance has urged the Senate panel to ask whether Mr. Ashcroft would uphold a strict separation of church and state by opposing federal funds for "pervasively sectarian" organizations and by prosecuting schools that allowed student-led prayer and judges who displayed the Ten Commandments in courthouses.
They also asked whether he would support hate-crime protection for religious minorities and oppose the practice called "secret evidence," used by the Justice Department to deport immigrants said to be tied to terrorism in religious-ethnic strife abroad.
Supporters of Mr. Ashcroft have said the Missouri lawmaker is in the mainstream of what is called an "accommodationist" or "pluralist" view of religion and public life, which rejects strict separation of church and state as overly secular and opposed to public opinion.
"He's not a strict separationist," said political scientist James Skillen, president of the Center for Public Justice.
"He would say government ought to give full respect to religions, but in no way let one be established," he said, likening it to the chaplain system in the armed services.
He said one issue that may arise in the hearings is whether religious ministries that receive charitable choice funding may hire only people on their own faith, regardless of race.
"I hope Senator Ashcroft makes clear that such hiring by a religious group is protected, and in no way contradicts anti-discrimination or civil-rights laws," Mr. Skillen said.
Last week, a Public Agenda poll showed that more than seven in 10 Americans support some kind of "charitable choice" provision and some kind of collective school prayer, such as a moment of silence.
The poll, conducted in November, also found that while most respondents did not want "sanctimonious" religion injected into public life, they were "disturbed by civil libertarians who appear to be busily eradicating religion from every sector of public life."
Ashcroft backers also have pointed to his support for the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist in exile under China's political policy, and his hearings on religious persecution of Christians and animists in Sudan.
"Senator Ashcroft has consistently defended the religious freedoms of everybody," said Kevin J. Hasson, present of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has defended Muslims and Jews.
If Mr. Ashcroft's critics seem to ally with liberals and Democrats, those who favor him tend to side with conservative and Republican-leaning religious groups.
"This shameless assault on Mr. Ashcroft's character and integrity requires a prophetic response from conscientious conservative religious leaders," a statement by the National Clergy Council said.
The Senate hearing today, the council said, "will put to rest the outrageous, scurrilous, and cowardly allegations that [he is] intolerant of religions other than his own."
The Republican Jewish Coalition has released a television spot supporting Mr. Ashcroft. "He has been a leader in the Senate on issues of particular concern to the American Jewish community," the coalition said.


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