U.S. Attorney General unveils 'First Freedom Project' at SBC Executive Committee meeting

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met with Southern Baptist leaders Feb. 20 to unveil a new Department of Justice initiative aimed at educating Americans about their religious liberties and to ask for the Southern Baptist Convention’s help in identifying and reporting abuses of those liberties.

Gonzales, in an address to SBC Executive Committee members during their Tuesday afternoon session, noted that he is charged by the president with “protecting and preserving not only the safety and security of all Americans, but also their rights, liberties and freedoms.”

“One of our most cherished freedoms, one we’ve sacrificed greatly to defend, is our religious liberty,” the attorney general said at the SBC Building in Nashville, Tenn. “Nothing defines us more as a nation and differentiates us more from the extremists who are our enemies than our respect for religious freedom. Our great country was founded on these principles, and many of us today believe it continues to thrive because of, not despite, them.”

The Department of Justice released Feb. 20 a “Report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom: Fiscal Years 2001-2006,” which describes the importance of religious freedom historically in America and the role assigned to the justice department. The report also summarizes the department’s accomplishments during the Bush administration to protect religious liberty through the enforcement of civil rights laws.

Among the cases included in the report is one defending the right of senior adults to pray, sing religious songs and hold Bible studies at a community senior center. Other areas of enforcement results include education, employment, housing and lending discrimination, public accommodations and public facilities, land use, rights of institutionalized persons, crimes against persons and property based on religion, and religious liberty in the courts of appeals.

“We’ve launched scores of investigations involving religious discrimination in education and housing, a sharp and marked increase in the justice department’s enforcement of these important federal protections,” Gonzales said. “We have fought to maintain and make clear the crucial distinction between improper government speech endorsing religion and constitutionally protected private speech endorsing religion.

“Why should it be permissible for an employee standing around the water cooler to declare that ‘Tiger Woods is God,’ but a firing offense for him to say ‘Jesus is Lord’?” he said to vocal affirmation from Executive Committee members. “These are the kinds of contradictions we are trying to address.”

Religious freedom is often referred to as the first freedom, Gonzales said, because it is a fundamental part of U.S. history and one of the nation’s core principles.

“In the First Amendment to the Constitution, at the top of the Bill of Rights, the founders declared that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Before free speech, before freedom of the press, before all of these other crucial rights, we put freedom of religion,” the attorney general said.

“This area of law has not always been given sufficient attention by the federal government, but from its earliest days this administration has worked to increase enforcement of religious freedom laws, including those against religious discrimination,” Gonzales added. “I am very proud of the report we’re releasing today, because it describes a legacy of protection unequaled since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

With the unveiling of the “First Freedom Project,” the Department of Justice is creating a department-wide Religious Freedom Task Force, the attorney general told Executive Committee members. Another component is the initiation of a program of public education to ensure that people know their rights. Gonzales said the justice department will hold a series of regional training seminars for leaders interested in religious liberty issues, starting in Kansas City, Mo., March 29.

Also, the department has launched a new website, firstfreedom.gov, with information on the laws they enforce and how to file a complaint. Justice officials will be distributing informational literature to religious organizations, civil rights groups and community leaders on how to file a complaint, Gonzales said.

“I am here to ask the Southern Baptist Convention, and all of you in this room, for your help,” the attorney general said. “The Department of Justice has many tools to protect religious freedoms in this country, and we are using them. But even with all of our passion and our dedication to this cause, we cannot do it alone.... I am so very glad to be here among men and women who understand and share our commitment.”

Before his address to Executive Committee members, Gonzales met personally with Morris H. Chapman, president of the Executive Committee, and several other Southern Baptist leaders including SBC President Frank Page and Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, based in Nashville.

During a news conference after his address, Gonzales told reporters his office approached SBC leaders about the possibility of him speaking at their regularly scheduled meeting because he knew he would be speaking to a receptive audience and because Southern Baptists have already been leaders in the quest to protect religious freedom in the United States and throughout the world.


For a transcript of the attorney general’s remarks, visit www.usdoj.gov.