That Attorney General John Ashcroft has been a thorn in the side of anti-Christian groups became obvious during his controversial Senate confirmation hearings, and criticism of him only intensified after he took office. The outspoken Christian beliefs of Ashcroft, son of a Pentecostal preacher, have rankled his detractors, so when he began conducting Bible study and prayer sessions at his office in the justice Department (though not during work hours) his opponents fell on him anew. The Washington Post made a federal case out of these meetings in a story titled "Ashcroft's Faith Plays Visible Role at justice," though the meetings were held behind closed doors. No matter. The Post emphasized that of the department's 135,000 employees worldwide, "some who do not share Ashcroft's Pentecostal Christian beliefs are discomfited by the daily prayer sessions-particularly because they are conducted by the nation's chief law enforcement officer, entrusted with enforcing a Constitution that calls for the separation of church and state."
"The purpose of the Department of justice is to do the business of the government, not to establish a religion," said one Justice attorney unwilling to be named. "It strikes me and a lot of others as offensive, disrespectful, and unconstitutional." In fact, Ashcroft was not acting on behalf of the government in conducting the meetings-so there is no legitimate claim of an Establishment Clause violation. Moreover, he and his subordinates are as entitled to the free exercise of their religion as any other American citizens. He was not conducting these meetings in his official capacity and attendance was completely voluntary. He neither rewarded those who attended nor punished those who did not. The meetings were even open to non-Christians, as confirmed by Jewish employee Shimon Stein, a program analyst who regularly attended the meetings. Stein said of Ashcroft, "He's made every effort to make everyone and everything comfortable." David Israelite, Ashcroft's deputy chief of staff, agreed: "He has never in any way insinuated that I should be going to these meetings, and I never felt I've been hindered by not attending." In addition, said Israelite, "I've known John Ashcroft for fifteen years and there is no more tolerant person that I've been around in my life." Indeed, Ashcroft doesn't believe in spreading his Christian beliefs by force. "It is against my religion to impose my religion on people," he recently said in a speech. Ashcroft was merely continuing a practice he had engaged in for years, including his time serving as a U.S. Senator.
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