John Ashcroft's Pentecostal Christian faith makes some people uncomfortable. You could feel it in the way some senators gingerly danced around the issue when Ashcroft was nominated to be attorney general. Although they didn't always say so directly, some of Ashcroft's critics implied that because of his deep faith, he might not be fit to serve in the cabinet. "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," worried one liberal critic during Ashcroft's difficult confirmation battle. And the criticism hasn't abated since.
Now, Ashcroft's faith has sparked the attention of the Washington Post, which recently devoted a front-page article to the attorney general's daily bible study group. "Bible sessions with staffers draw questions and criticism" warned the Post.
It seems Ashcroft holds an informal session in his office or a nearby conference room each morning, before work, where participants discuss Scripture. The meetings are open to whoever wants to attend. While most attendees are evangelical Christians, like Ashcroft, at least one is an Orthodox Jew, who says "growing up in the circle I did, I didn't have a chance to study other religions, so it's very educational to me."
So why is this informal Bible study group front-page news? Apparently some Justice Department employees aren't happy their boss is exercising his faith at work. One anonymous critic told the Post, "It strikes me and a lot of others as offensive, disrespectful and unconstitutional. ... It at least blurs the line, and it probably crosses it."
Now mind you, the attorney general hasn't mandated attendance at these sessions, and most of his top aides have never attended. Nor has he sent out an agency notice on the meetings, which might be viewed by some as applying official pressure to attend. But just as some folks get to work a little early to sit around the cafeteria over coffee while they discuss the previous night's basketball game or "Sopranos" episode, Ashcroft and his fellow Bible students meet to "read, argue, memorize and pray."
Surely Ashcroft's activities are protected by the First Amendment. Do his critics really mean to forbid cabinet officials -- or any government employee -- from praying on the job if they choose, or doing so in the presence of others, so long as it is voluntary? Or is prayer permissible only if it's silent? Or done when no one else is in the room?
I'm sure none of the people criticizing Ashcroft would like to think that their attitude toward the attorney general is in any way motivated by religious bigotry. But I'm not so sure. It's hard to imagine that anyone would be exercised if the attorney general were running a little transcendental meditation group before work each morning, but somehow the thought that he might be discussing Mosaic law or Christ's dictum to "Love thy neighbor as thyself," sends shivers down the spines of some.
The fact is, Ashcroft's overt religiosity unnerves secularists, and even those Christians and other believers who think religion belongs in church, or perhaps at home, but never in the workplace. But for the very devout -- whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist -- their religion permeates all they do. For some, it affects the way they dress. For others, the way they speak. For all, the way they behave. Should we force them to hide their light under a bushel?
It's no less wrong to forbid pious persons from attending devotional meetings on their own time than it would be to require the non-religious to attend such services. The free exercise clause of the First Amendment guarantees both groups -- and everyone in between -- the right to practice as much or as little religion, and in whatever manner, as they see fit. The attorney general didn't give up his First Amendment rights when he took his oath of office, and it would be dangerous to expect him to do so.