In the five years before President Bush took office, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reviewed one education discrimination complaint involving religion and investigated none. In the six years since, 82 cases were reviewed and 40 investigated.

Now the Bush administration wants to enhance those efforts with greater governmental resources. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced at a Southern Baptist leaders' meeting in February that the DOJ was launching the First Freedom Project, an initiative to further combat religious discrimination and protect religious freedom.

"One of the great strengths of America is the fact we are a nation of tolerance. We respect different viewpoints; we respect different beliefs," Wan J. Kim, assistant attorney general for civil rights, told CT. "That separates us from a lot of other nations. When we do this work to protect against religious discrimination, we strengthen America. And we do so in a way that is nondenominational."

The initiative will include the Religious Freedom Task Force, chaired by Kim, which will employ various divisions of the DOJ to review discrimination complaints. The new website touts previous successes, educates Americans about their rights, and provides a channel for filing complaints online. The department also will hold a series of regional training seminars. Events have been scheduled for Tampa on April 25 and Seattle on May 10.

Even before the First Freedom Project, the DOJ's stepped-up efforts have generated greater religious freedom, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Government lawyers convinced a federal court last year that a New Jersey school had unconstitutionally censored a Christian song from a talent show. The DOJ compelled the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2005 to accommodate religious beliefs, even if it meant bus drivers wouldn't work certain days.

The First Freedom Project comes at a time when concern about religious persecution has heightened. Between 1992 and 2005, religious-discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped 69 percent.

Given the Bush administration's ties to religious conservatives, some experts greeted the initiative with skepticism.

"They need to reach out to many different constituencies that have different approaches to church-state issues to give people confidence this will be a straightforward educational project and not a political battering ram," said Melissa Rogers, visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School. "[The unveiling] sends the opposite signals."

But Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, said the Bush administration has a track record of defending religious minorities.

"It is unfortunate we are so polarized today that we can't even acknowledge opportunities where we can agree," Haynes said. "Just because it is coming out of the Bush administration, some people decide it has to be condemned completely and labeled a fake and a fraud and that the work being done to protect religious minorities doesn't matter. Well, it does matter to Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and Jews. Whether you are on the Right or the Left, this is exactly the kind of Justice Department you should want. This is exactly what we want them to be doing to protect religious freedom."

Related Elsewhere:

The DOJ's First Freedom Project website (not to be confused with the Baptist First Freedoms Project) has many resources, including a report on the "Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom: Fiscal Years 2001-2006," newsletters, and explanations of what constitutes religious discrimination in education, employment, and in other settings.

Related news articles include:

U.S. Attorney General unveils 'First Freedom Project' at SBC Executive Committee meeting | U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met with Southern Baptist leaders Feb. 20 to unveil a new Department of Justice initiative aimed at educating Americans about their religious liberties and to ask for the Southern Baptist Convention's help in identifying and reporting abuses of those liberties. (Baptist Press)
Gonzales touts religious-freedom plan to SBC; others question Bush record | Gonzales chose the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee meeting to announce a new Justice Department focus on religious freedom. But some Christian leaders questioned the move. (Associated Baptist Press)
DOJ report says department has defended religious liberties | A 43-page document was released by the U.S. Department of Justice Feb. 20. (Baptist Press)

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