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Senator calls Dunn stance against Ashcroft ‘biased and extremist’

WASHINGTON (BP)–James Dunn, former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and current head of that agency’s endowment campaign, opposed the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general in testimony Jan. 19 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He declared his opposition only four days after current BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said the agency would maintain its policy of not supporting or opposing a candidate for appointed or elected office. Dunn made it clear in his testimony he spoke for himself only, a BJC spokesman said Jan. 22. The agency has not altered its position of refusing to oppose or to endorse Ashcroft, the spokesman said. The BJC’s Walker, however, has expressed doubts about Ashcroft’s ability to work on behalf of Americans of all religions when he possesses such well-known evangelical Christian convictions.

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. Another member of the BJC is the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Dunn, now president of the BJC Endowment and visiting professor at Wake Forest Divinity School, was identified by his affiliation with the school on the witness list for the hearings. He told the committee he spoke for himself and was not representing Wake Forest. He did not mention his affiliation with the BJC. Past speeches and writings by Dunn, however, continue to be featured on the BJC’s Internet site.

Ashcroft’s “identification with and approval of the political agenda of right-wing extremism in this country convinces me that he is unqualified and unreliable for such a serious trust,” Dunn told the committee. The nominee has an “extremist philosophy regarding the First Amendment,” he said.

The former senator from Missouri “does not understand the first freedom,” Dunn said. “It seems that he just doesn’t get it. Now that’s the kindest and most generous interpretation of his opposition to church-state separation. Either he has a blind spot, a lapse, or he is one of those who would willfully and intentionally destroy the doctrine of church-state separation that we have known in this country.”

Later, Sen. Jon Kyl, R.-Ariz., described Dunn’s comments as “biased and extremist.”

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which replaced the BJC as the convention’s church-state agency in the early 1990s, endorsed Ashcroft in a Jan. 15 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.”

Ashcroft’s opposition to abortion, homosexual rights, certain racial desegregation plans and a federal judgeship for Ronnie White, a black judge from Missouri, has resulted in a vehement campaign against his confirmation by abortion rights organizations such as Planned Parenthood Federation of America, homosexual rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and liberal civil rights advocates such as People for the American Way.

Among the supporters of Ashcroft, in addition to the ERLC, are, National Right to Life, Focus on the Family, American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council and the American Center for Law and Justice

Dunn, in his testimony, was especially critical of Ashcroft’s promotion of charitable choice, which enables religious groups to receive government funds in order to provide social services. He is among those who have challenged the “constitutionality of such legislation because we believe that the dumping of tax dollars on faith-based programs is dangerous,” Dunn said. Charitable choice will seriously weaken “religion’s vitality by developing a dependence on tax money for church-based programs,” he said.

He called on the senators not to allow the tradition of respect for one another to allow them to “sacrifice religious liberty, civil rights, civil liberties on the altar of senatorial civility.”

In response to Kyl, Dunn said his “bias and extremism that Senator Kyl referred to is largely verbatim right out of United States Supreme Court decisions.”

Ashcroft, a member of an Assemblies of God church, supports an accommodationist approach to church-state relations rather than the strict-separationist view espoused to different degrees by the BJC and such organizations as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. AU is opposing Ashcroft.

At a Jan. 15 news conference, the BJC’s Walker said 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.” He called on the Senate 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.”

The ERLC’s Land, meanwhile, said, “John Ashcroft is a man of integrity, and John Ashcroft will enforce the law as it is written, even if he disagrees with it.”

Ashcroft served as attorney general and governor of Missouri before his election to the Senate in 1994. He was defeated in November in his re-election race.