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BJC, others push doubts against Ashcroft in serving all Americans

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, a church-state agency formerly supported by the Southern Baptist Convention, expressed doubts about attorney general nominee John Ashcroft’s ability to work on behalf of Americans of all religions when he possesses such well-known evangelical Christian convictions.

BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said at a Jan. 15 news conference the agency does not support or oppose nominees but questioned whether Ashcroft is “up to the job.”

The doubts expressed by the BJC and several other groups came on the same day the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which is the convention’s church-state agency now, endorsed Ashcroft in a letter to members of the Senate. ERLC President Richard Land said in comments for reporters Ashcroft is a “man of sterling integrity and bedrock Christian faith” who “will provide protection for the constitutional rights of all citizens and enforce this country’s laws equally.”

Walker said in the Jan. 15 news conference, meanwhile, that the BJC applauds the “fact that Senator Ashcroft’s deeply held religious convictions inform his commitment to governmental service and the policies which he espouses.”

“However, Sen. Ashcroft must not confuse his constitutional right to the free exercise of religion with the obligation of government officials not to establish religion but to serve all of the people regardless of religion,” Walker said.

On the eve of Ashcroft’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Walker called on senators to investigate church-state issues in order to satisfy themselves of Ashcroft’s “ability to put aside his personal, ideological predilections and enforce the law in a way that comports with the First Amendment’s religion clauses and the separation of church and state.”

Walker’s comments echoed some by Welton Gaddy, executive director of The Interfaith Alliance, at the same news conference. Gaddy said he has “grave concerns” about Ashcroft’s capability in a “position in which he would be charged with upholding and fully enforcing the constitutional rights and liberties of faith groups that he clearly judges to be wrong and in need of correction.” TIA also has not taken a position on the confirmation of Ashcroft, Gaddy said.

Walker and Gaddy were joined by Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Jain/Hindu leaders who also questioned Ashcroft’s ability to serve as the attorney general for all citizens.

The BJC served as the Southern Baptist Convention’s church-state representative in Washington until the convention voted to defund and cut ties with it in the early 1990s.

Member bodies of the BJC include the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists, both which were formed in reaction to the SBC’s conservative resurgence the last two decades. The Baptist General Convention of Texas and the American Baptist Churches are among other BJC member bodies.

James Dunn, president of the BJC Endowment and former executive director of the agency, was listed tentatively on the Judiciary Committee’s website Jan. 16 as a witness for Ashcroft’s confirmation hearings. It was uncertain what the nature of his testimony would be.

While the BJC and TIA did not announce opposition to Ashcroft, other church-state organizations, as well as various advocacy groups, have. Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged the Senate to reject Ashcroft. His positions are “so far outside the mainstream that it is doubtful he could enforce the very laws and rights that the attorney general must protect and uphold,” said Barry Lynn, AU’s executive director.

Other outspoken foes of Ashcroft’s nomination are abortion rights organizations such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, homosexual rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and liberal advocates such as People for the American Way.

Ashcroft advocates, in addition to the ERLC, include National Right to Life, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and the American Center for Law and Justice.

Ashcroft is strongly pro-life and supports an accommodationist approach to church-state relations rather than the strict separationist view espoused to different degrees by the BJC, TIA and AU. He was the prime sponsor of the charitable-choice provision in the 1996 welfare reform law. Charitable choice enables religious groups to receive government funds in order to provide social services.

TIA has asked the Judiciary Committee, Gaddy said, to question whether Ashcroft would:

— Take school districts to court if they do not uphold a Supreme Court ruling against prayer at football games led by a student selected by his schoolmates.

— Oppose the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings and insist judges respect religious diversity.

— Permit government funds to go to religious organizations.

“It’s important that the attorney general of the United States be committed without apology and without reservation to the separation of church and state,” Walker said. “Senator Ashcroft’s record reveals a hostility to, or at least a misunderstanding of, that principle.”

These concerns are not about the “integrity of anyone’s faith,” Gaddy said, adding there “should not be a religious test for public office.”

Gaddy is also pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La.