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Senate confirms Ashcroft after contentious battle

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Senate confirmed John Ashcroft as attorney general Feb. 1 after a vehement campaign against the nominee that led to charges of religious discrimination from some of his supporters.

Eight Democrats joined all the Republicans to approve their former colleague in a 58-42 vote. Ashcroft served as a senator from Missouri for six years before losing his re-election bid in November.

Ashcroft, a member of an Assemblies of God church, has openly confessed his Christian faith and his desire to apply it to his public life. His opposition to abortion, homosexual rights, certain racial desegregation plans and a federal judgeship for Ronnie White, a black judge from Missouri, were cited as reasons for the opposition campaign, as well as his promotion of policies opposed by strict church-state separationists.

During hearings, Ashcroft, a former Missouri attorney general and governor, pledged to uphold the laws with which he disagreed.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, charged some opponents of holding Ashcroft to a different standard than the one applied to those with other religious beliefs, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in the last election and frequently spoke of his religious faith.

“I believe most Americans are relieved that President Bush now has the attorney general he nominated,” said Land, who endorsed Ashcroft in a letter to senators.

Land bemoaned “the Senate’s grilling of their former colleague and the attempt by many senators to distort his sterling record of public service and to denigrate his religious convictions — in what amounted to nothing less than a vicious episode of religious profiling in which Mr. Ashcroft’s evangelical beliefs were attacked in a way that an attack against no other religious group’s beliefs would have been tolerated.”

Such attacks, Land said, “should be causes of concern to all fair-minded Americans. The senators who engaged in this process ought to be ashamed of themselves. Most of them know their former colleague as a far better man than they attempted to portray him as being to the American people.”

Some Republican senators also expressed dismay at the attacks on Ashcroft. Before the vote, Sen. Phil Gramm, R.-Texas, said the campaign caused him to wonder “if there’s not an effort to make the love of traditional values a hate crime in America,” The Washington Times reported. “The plain truth is, we may have ‘In God We Trust’ on our coins, but we do not have it in our hearts.”

In announcing his opposition before the vote, Lieberman denied charges of “religious profiling.”

“It is Senator Ashcroft’s record, not his religion, we should judge today,” Lieberman said, according to The Washington Post.

In a written release, Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, called it encouraging that the Justice Department “is now in the hands of an attorney general who is dedicated to defending the constitutional principles that are at the foundation of this nation. The Justice Department will now get what it has needed for some time — a strong and dedicated leader who will equally enforce the law.”

After the vote, Ashcroft’s opponents contended the number of votes against confirmation served notice to Bush of the amount of resistance a similar nominee, especially to the Supreme Court, would face.

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said in a written statement, “As demonstrated by our campaign in opposition to Ashcroft’s nomination, NARAL is prepared to do whatever is necessary to defeat nominations to the Supreme Court and lower circuit federal courts that would threaten a woman’s right to choose.”

Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, charged in a prepared statement Bush’s Justice Department would be a “bastion of the far-right legal thought that is reflected on the Supreme Court in justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Clearly this administration is staking out a position well to the right of both the first Bush administration and the Reagan administration.”

While the ERLC endorsed Ashcroft, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs declined to support or oppose his nomination. The BJC, however, raised questions about Ashcroft’s ability to handle church-state issues in an appropriate manner, in a statement issued by its executive director, Brent Walker. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Alliance of Baptists are among the BJC’s member bodies.

James Dunn, president of the BJC Endowment and the agency’s former executive director, testified against Ashcroft in committee hearings but said he did so as an individual.

After the Senate vote, Ashcroft was sworn in at the Supreme Court by Thomas.

The eight Democratic senators who voted for confirmation were John Breaux of Louisiana, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

One of those who did not was new Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan. She was appointed to the seat won by her late husband, Mel, then governor of Missouri, who was killed in a plane crash shortly before the election to unseat Ashcroft. Ashcroft, also a former Missouri governor, declined to challenge the vote count or the constitutionality of Carnahan’s election. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Rolla, Mo.

Feingold was the only Democrat to vote for Ashcroft when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nominee with a 10-8 vote Jan. 30.

Among the organizations opposing Ashcroft were Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest homosexual-rights group.

In addition to the ERLC and ACLJ, other organizations endorsing Ashcroft included the National Right to Life, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council and American Family Association.