Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Justice Department Announces New Religious Freedom Initiatives

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice released its Report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom: Fiscal Years 2001- 2006. (AP report.) It also issued a press release announcing the First Freedom Project-- a number of new initiatives to promote religious freedom. Attorney General Alberto J. Gonzales says the department will: (1) create a Department-wide Religious Freedom Task Force; (2) initiate a program of public education to make certain that people know their rights and that community leaders bring religious liberty concerns to the department's attention; (3) hold a series of regional training seminars for religious, civil rights and community leaders; (4) launch a new website with information on laws protecting religious freedom and how to file a complaint; and (5) distribute informational literature on how to file religious discrimination complaints.

The Attorney General also announced these initiatives in a speech before the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. (Full text.) In the speech he referred to the events of 9-11, saying that:"Nothing defines us more as a Nation – and differentiates us more from the extremists who are our enemies – than our respect for religious freedom."

He also praised the leadership of President George W. Bush, saying: "Most Americans believe in God. And so they naturally understand and accept the limitations and imperfections that are a part of being human. Perhaps because of our frailties, most of us yearn for heroes, we are attracted to and inspired by leaders who perform extraordinary deeds or at least inspire others in worthy causes. I believe this is why many Americans share a natural curiosity—a fascination—about the President of the United States.... [T]here are very few individuals as strong in their faith as George W. Bush."

Yesterday's Tennessean reported on the Attorney General's speech. It quoted Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, who wondered why the announcement of the new initiatives was made to a meeting of a single religious group rather than to an interfaith gathering.