The New York Times reports that the Ashcroft/Gonzales Department of “Justice” (my quotes) has significantly shifted the civil rights mission of the nation’s highest prosecutor of federal law. Instead of focusing on cases that deny civil rights to persons based on their race or national origin, the DOJ now aggressively pursues cases defending the rights of religious groups first and foremost:
â€œNot until recently has anyone in the department considered religious discrimination such a high priority. No one had ever considered it to be of the same magnitude as race or national origin.â€ – Brian K. Landsberg, former Justice Department lawyer
Some samples of the types of cases now given priority by the Ashcroft/Gonzales DOJ:
– intervening to defend groups like the Salvation Army who “discriminate in hiring in favor of people who share their beliefs even though they are running charitable programs with federal money”;
– supporting groups that send home religious literature with schoolchildren;
– enforcing a 2000 law allowing places of worship to be free of some local zoning restrictions;
– pursuing cases of human trafficking, particularly of young women for the sex trade, a favorite issue of the religious right.
And while shifting the department’s emphasis to these sorts of litigation, the DOJ has decreased its support of the following kinds of cases:
– taking on fewer hate crimes cases and cases where police are charged with violating a suspect’s rights;
– reducing complex lawsuits that challenge voting plans that might dilute black voter strength.
In order to achieve these new goals, the Ashcroft/Gonzales DOJ has adjusted its hiring practices:
The agency has transferred or demoted some experienced civil rights litigators while bringing in lawyers, including graduates of religious-affiliated law schools and some people vocal about their faith, who favor the new priorities. That has created some unease, with some career lawyers disdainfully referring to the newcomers as holy hires.
Some such as Ayesha Khan, counsel of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, find the new focus of the DOJ’s deeply troubling because it seems to use “the power of the federal government to put in place an ideological, not constitutional agenda.”
The DOJ doesn’t seem fazed by such criticism, however. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (ptui!) trumpets the work of the department pursuing this new religious rights legal agenda:
Mr. Gonzales has increasingly cited his agencyâ€™s record on behalf of religious causes as among his most important accomplishments….In speeches, he routinely says that religious freedom is the nationâ€™s “first freedom because our founders saw fit to place it first in the Bill of Rights.”
And of course believer-in-chief George Bush is pleased: “President Bush has also talked of the departmentâ€™s religion-related activities in appearances before religious conservatives, an important element of his support.”
But perhaps most ominous in all this is the reshaping of the DOJ’s staff:
As it has reoriented its priorities, the department has also tried to remake the cast of government lawyers who enforce civil rights. A number of career lawyers who served as section heads or deputies in the civil rights division have been replaced.In Congressional testimony in March, Mr. Rich said seven managers had been removed or marginalized for what he characterized as political reasons or perceived disloyalty. Department officials acknowledge the changes, but dispute the reasons.In addition, Mr. Ashcroft arranged for the agencyâ€™s senior political appointees to take over the decades-old system used to hire recent law school graduates for entry-level career jobs that are supposed to be nonpartisan.
And who have these political appointees selected by Ashcroft and supported by Gonzales hired? More and more they’ve chosen newly minted attorneys from schools run by the religious right:
Figures provided by the department show that from 2003 through 2006, there was a notable increase of hirings from religious-affiliated institutions like Regent University and Ave Maria University…graduates seeking work at the Justice Department had a better chance by cleansing their rÃ©sumÃ©s of liberal affiliations while emphasizing ties to the Federalist Society, a Washington conservative group, or membership in a religious fellowship….When the front office sent around the rÃ©sumÃ©s of those newly hired for the honors program, a former DOJ attorney, now a law school professor, said, â€œIt was obvious what they had: conservative and religious bona fides.â€
What all this means is that those who run afoul of federal prosecutors for, oh, protesting voting rights suppression had better hope they have God on their side. Alberto Gonzales and George Bush certainly believe they do….