- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 5, 2004

The Bush administration’s point man in fighting religious discrimination is a 39-year-old lawyer who jokes about his “Yankee accent,” is married with two children and attends the conservative McLean Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

However, Eric W. Treene’s appointment as the administration’s defender of the rights of religious minorities has been kept under the radar since his hire in June 2002, possibly to avoid more attacks on a Justice Department known for its in-house Bible studies conducted by Attorney General John Ashcroft.

But his friends say the Justice Department chose well when it hired Mr. Treene as its first special counsel for religious discrimination.

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“Eric is a lawyer’s lawyer,” says Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson, founder and president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a D.C. law firm specializing in religious freedom cases.

“Eric is tenacious and meticulous at the same time,” Mr. Hasson said. “He’ll go to the mat for his client, but not one millimeter outside the boundaries of good, ethical practice.”

Mr. Hasson hired Mr. Treene as chief litigator for the Becket Fund in 1995 after the two worked together briefly at the D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly.

“He’s a wonderful family man and a brilliant lawyer,” said Patrick Korten, also of the Becket Fund. “You find yourself at the Department of Justice rubbing elbows with a group of attorneys who are the brightest, most energetic attorneys you will ever come across. Eric fits within that group.”

Mr. Treene’s boss, Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta, said the Arlington resident was brought on to bring dedication to one specific task.

“It was important,” he said, “to have one person bird-dogging and following these matters to ensure they received thorough and high-level review.”

Some liberals disagree. The American Prospect, a Democratic magazine, described Mr. Treene’s hiring as evidence of a Justice Department enacting “pro-Christian legal changes.”

But the Rev. Robert Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, said there was widespread rejoicing among Christians when Mr. Treene joined the department.

“Eric’s presence there sends a positive signal to people like me and other organizations who are concerned regarding religious issues,” he said. “I am not sure why the Department of Justice doesn’t show him off to conservative Christians. Treene’s presence sends a signal that it’s a friendly place for people like us.”

Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, representing nearly 1,000 synagogues, said his group suggested creating the religious liberty post at the department.

“When the Bush administration was coming into office, we suggested to them the civil rights division should ramp up its focus on religious liberty issues, which had fallen by the wayside,” he said. “Racial and gender discrimination issues had become the central focus of the civil rights division and religious discrimination did not get the same level of attention.”

Mr. Diament’s group has campaigned for zoning ordinances to allow synagogues in residential areas for the benefit of Orthodox Jews who must walk, instead of drive, on the Sabbath.

Mr. Diament and Mr. Treene were in Harvard Law School’s class of 1992, where Mr. Diament remembers his classmate as “a nice, friendly person and a serious student.”

Mr. Treene’s job, a GS-15 position with a pay range from $100,231 to $130,305, was created in January 2002, partly to deal with the flood of religious discrimination complaints after September 11. The department received 900 complaints, opened 500 investigations and got 18 convictions.

Mr. Treene also has focused his energies on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed unanimously by Congress in 2000. The legislation forbids cities from excluding houses of worship in a zone where a similar secular use, such as a fraternal organization, is permitted.

Religious minorities, who make up 9 percent of the population, have filed more than 50 percent of all zoning appeals involving houses of worship, Mr. Treene said. Jews, who make up 2 percent, have filed 20 percent of such appeals.

Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law specialist teaching at Yeshiva University in New York City, says Mr. Treene’s department is wasting precious federal dollars.

“Eric is a fine person and I have no problem with him,” she said. “But my concern is with the Department of Justice and its focus. It should not be sending out people to micromanage land-use issues in an era of terror.”

Mr. Treene also has advised on cases in which the government defends the right of Muslim students and employees to wear head scarves or caps in school or on the job.

He drafted a March 4 brief to a federal court in San Diego on behalf of a local Boy Scout council over the Scouts’ use of city land and a nearby aquatic center. The brief said a district court had erred in saying the Boy Scouts was a religious organization and thereby not eligible to lease the land or the aquatic center. However, a federal judge rejected the Justice Department’s argument.

Mr. Treene had better luck in a case involving Texas Tech University biology professor Michael Dini, who refused to recommend students for medical school unless they knew him personally, had received an A in one of his courses and could affirm a scientific answer to the question “How do you think the human species originated?”

Some Texas Tech students objected, saying that Mr. Dini was discriminating against students who did not believe in evolution. Under pressure from the Justice Department, the professor reworded the question to say students had to explain only the scientific theory of evolution.

“A state-run university had no business telling students what or what not to believe in,” Mr. Treene said.

Although he got some criticism for his involvement in the Texas Tech inquiry, he said: “I am involved to some degree with all religion cases within the division. That is my job.”

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