The Times Worries About Bush's Defense of Religious Freedoms

The Times is worried about the Bush Justice Department's focus on religion - and its hiring of lawyers from religious schools

The Justice Department's newfocus on religious freedom is a cause for concern worthy of the front page of Thursday's Times, in a story by law reporter Neil Lewis, "Justice Dept. Reshapes Its Civil Rights Mission." The text box: "Focus on Racial Issues Gives Way to Cases Involving Religion."

"In recent years, the Bush administration has recast the federal government's role in civil rights by aggressively pursuing religion-oriented cases while significantly diminishing its involvement in the traditional area of race.

"Paralleling concerns of many conservative groups, the Justice Department has successfully argued in a number of cases that government agencies, employers or private organizations have improperly suppressed religious expression in situations that the Constitution's drafters did not mean to restrict."

Every administration, whether liberal or conservative, has its ideological priorities, especially when managing finite departmental resources, but Lewis marked his apparent disapproval of the Bush administration's choices with unflattering terminology: "The shift in priorities at the criminal section of the civil rights division has been especially stark. The criminal section - which previously had mostly focused on hate crimes or lawsuits against police officers who may have violated someone's civil rights - began taking on human trafficking cases that had previously been handled elsewhere."

Lewis listed some of the things that are furrowing brows at the Times:

"Taking on far fewer hate crimes and cases in which local law enforcement officers may have violated someone's civil rights. The resources for these traditional cases have instead been used to investigate trafficking cases, typically involving foreign women used in the sex trade, a favored issue of the religious right."

Soonly"the religious right" isconcerned about the sex trade?

Also: "Sharply reducing the complex lawsuits that challenge voting plans that might dilute the strength of black voters. The department initiated only one such case through the early part of this year, compared with eight in a comparable period in the Clinton administration."

But is that really a cut-and-dried civil rights issue? Given that racial gerrymandering favored by black politicians has consolidated black voting strength in some legislative districts while necessarily diluting it in others, the very issue of "diluting the strength of black voters" lacks a universally agreed-upon definition.

Later, Lewis tried to sow doubt about the reliability of law graduates from religious schools: "In addition, Mr. Ashcroft arranged for the agency'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.

"Under the system, known as the honors program, nonpolitical career lawyers had screened applicants. Those selected were almost exclusively graduates of top-ranked law schools and often had had prestigious judicial clerkships or other relevant experience.

"Monica M. Goodling, a former senior aide to Mr. Gonzales, testified to a House committee last month that she had improperly used politics to hire some people as assistant federal prosecutors and for other civil service jobs, a possible violation of federal employment laws.

"But the pattern of hiring on an ideological basis was more widespread than what Ms. Goodling described, according to interviews and department statistics.

"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. The department hired eight from those two schools in that period, compared to 50 from Harvard and 13 from Yale.

"Several career lawyers said that some political appointees favored the religious-oriented employees, intervening to steer $1,000 to $4,000 annual merit bonuses to them."

The Times found those figures so significant it actually broke them out in a separate chart, though the religious infestation seems less than overwhelming. Regent and Ave Maria contributed a grand total of eight hires over a four-year period, compared to 63 from the two Ivy League schools, Harvard and Yale. Seems the secular-oriented schools are doing just fine.