Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at the Meeting of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention

    NASHVILLE, Feb. 20 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Following are the prepared remarks of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at the meeting of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention:     Good afternoon. Thank you Doctor Chapman.     Most Americans believe in God.     And so they naturally understand and accept the limitations and imperfections that are a part of being human.     Perhaps because of our frailties, most of us yearn for heroes, we are attracted to and inspired by leaders who perform extraordinary deeds or at least inspire others in worthy causes. I believe this is why many Americans share a natural curiosity -- a fascination -- about the President of the United States, the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. There may be some here who know the President as well or better than I do, but for those who do not, let me just say that there are very few individuals as strong in their faith as George W. Bush.     He is by nature, an optimist, who sees the best in people and who believes in the goodness of men and women to step forward and help their neighbor.     He does the very best that he can in using the majestic power of the Presidency to inspire, to lead ... to do. But he also knows that the power of the Presidency is not perfect ... that there are limits in his authority to lift up his neighbor, to fight injustice, to secure the dreams of the children of this world. In two years President Bush will probably retire to his ranch in Texas secure in the knowledge that he did his best during extraordinarily difficult times. And I know that his strong faith in God will sustain him during the next chapter of life, like it has over the past six years.     Those of us in this Administration have confronted many decisions that have tested our faith. It is easy to sit in the sterile environment of a classroom, with the benefit of hindsight, and second-guess a decision made in the belief it was necessary to protect America. It is harder to actually make that decision as an initial matter, in real time, with American lives at stake. In such moments you have to believe in what you are doing, you must have courage, you must have faith.     It is indeed a pleasure for me to be here with you, among men and women of faith, who are guided by Scripture, as it says: "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."     Your good works are indeed a tremendous benefit to our society and our Nation, and for that I want to thank you. And you have worked tirelessly to secure religious liberty in the United States and throughout the world.     I am pleased to visit with you today; to tell you a little about some of what we've been doing at the Department. Because sometimes, in the noise and clamor of Washington and the media, some of our most important work can go unnoticed; and it shouldn't.     In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, our number one priority has been to do all we can to prevent another attack on America. It is an important job, and it is one I take very seriously. But it is not our     only job. I am charged by the President with protecting and preserving not only the safety and security of all Americans, but also their rights, liberties and freedoms.     September 11th gave all of us -- especially those of us in public service -- a common purpose. Since the first plane crashed into the North Tower, we have struggled with an enemy of violent extremists; an enemy that is unafraid to use terror to try to intimidate and threaten the United States. I do not believe they intended merely to kill Americans that day. I believe they also intended to kill our spirit; to change the story of America from one of hope to one of fear ... from one of openness to one of suspicion ... from one of faith to one of despair.     Like all Americans, I cherish our civil liberties. They are at the very heart of what it means to live in freedom. I am committed to preserving them in everything we do at the Department of Justice.     One of our most cherished freedoms -- one we've sacrificed greatly to defend -- is our religious liberty.     Nothing defines us more as a Nation -- and differentiates us more from the extremists who are our enemies -- than our respect for religious freedom.     Our great country was founded on these principles, and many of us today believe it continues to thrive because of, not despite, them.     So I would like to talk with you today about what the Department of Justice has done to protect religious freedom and religious liberty, and what we will be doing in the future. And I'm going to ask for your help as well, because while I am proud of all we have accomplished, I know that there is more to be done.     Today we are releasing our Report on Laws Protecting Religious Freedom, for Fiscal Years 2001 to 2006. This document describes the importance of religious freedom historically in our country and the role assigned to the Department of Justice to protect it.     When we talk about religious freedom, we often refer to it as the First Freedom. It is a fundamental part of our Nation's history, and one of our core principles. In the First Amendment to the Constitution, at the top of the Bill of Rights, the Founders declared that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Before free speech, before freedom of the press, before all of these other crucial rights, we put freedom of religion.     This area of law has not always been given sufficient attention by the federal government, but from its earliest days this administration has worked to increase enforcement of religious freedom laws, including those against religious discrimination. I am very proud of the report we're releasing today, because it describes a legacy of protection unequaled since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.     Religious liberty is not confined to the members of one church, or the followers of one set of beliefs. It is a universal right that applies to people of all faiths.     The Justice Department takes seriously the protection of this right for all people. So when a city-run senior center in Balch Springs, Texas, told Barney Clark and other members that they could no longer pray before meals, sing Gospel songs, or hold Bible studies, we opened an investigation. Even though each of those activities was voluntary and initiated by the seniors, and no employee of the center was involved, the city mistakenly believed that the separation of church and state required it to ban the activities.     In our view, the center's prohibition on religious speech, while permitting members to engage in other kinds of speech, was a clear violation of the Constitution. And after we began our investigation, the Balch Springs City Council unanimously agreed.     I'm proud of that case, and I am equally proud that we stood in defense of Nashala Hearn, a Muslim girl in the sixth grade in Muskogee, Oklahoma, whose school told her that she could not wear a headscarf required by her faith. Though other students were permitted to wear head coverings for non-religious purposes, Nashala was suspended twice for wearing her headscarf. That's a difficult position for a young student to be in, facing down her school principal and administration. I don't know how I would have reacted when I was in sixth grade. But Nashala stood up for herself, and she had the Department of Justice to back her up.     Much of the work we have done in this area involves not just religious practice, but religious expression in the schools. In one case, we filed a friend of the court brief in a case involving the Frenchtown, New Jersey, school district. The town's elementary school held a talent show, dubbed "Frenchtown Idol," consisting of songs, skits, and other performances by students. Each student was free to choose his or her own act, subject to a few basic guidelines barring profanity, weapons, alcohol, or drugs. However, when one girl chose to sing a Christian song, "Awesome God," she was told that it was inappropriate because of its religious content.     Last December, the U.S. District Court agreed with our position that this was not a simple case of a school exercising control over its curriculum -- it was an unlawful restriction on individual student speech in an activity designed for student expression. The court found that Frenchtown Idol was not part of the school curriculum, but was, instead, a voluntary after-school event in which students were invited -- not required -- to participate.     The school had attempted to censor the girl's song choice because they felt it was a "proselytizing song" that "commanded the listener to adhere to the singer's beliefs." The court pointed out that many songs encourage someone to believe something, noting that school officials had admitted that students could sing songs that espouse a belief that it is important to take care of the earth, to help poor people, and to lean on friends when they experience hardships. In light of the fact that secular "proselytizing" through songs would be permitted, the court ruled that the school could not discriminate against religious songs that did the same thing.     In each of these cases, and in dozens of others like them, we argued that students, seniors...all citizens ... should not be forced to check their religion at the door. It is irrelevant what that religion is; what matters is the right to practice it.     The Department of Justice has actively pursued cases involving religion not just in access to education and public facilities, but in equal access to housing, lending, and employment as well. Over the past six years, we have had many successes. We've launched scores of investigations involving religious discrimination in education and housing, a sharp and marked increase in the Justice Department's enforcement of these important federal protections. We have fought to maintain and make clear the crucial distinction between improper government speech endorsing religion and constitutionally protected private speech endorsing religion.     Why should it be permissible for an employee standing around the water cooler to declare that 'Tiger Woods is God,' but a firing offense for him to say 'Jesus is Lord'? These are the kinds of contradictions we are trying to address.     In doing so, we have enforced the laws on the books, and we have supported new laws to strengthen religious freedoms.     For example, I don't have to tell you that free exercise of religion is more than just the right to a personal faith. It is also the right to assemble as a church-to gather together to worship as a community of the faithful.     But it is not uncommon for houses of worship to face discrimination from local zoning authorities, who would impose restrictions on the use of their land.     Local laws sometimes exclude religious assemblies while permitting other, secular gatherings in the same spot. They may restrict the ability of churches to build religious schools or expand houses of worship on their property, or force those churches to go through a more burdensome approval process than other non-religious groups.     In response, Congress unanimously enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and authorized the Department of Justice to bring suits to enforce it. Since 2001 we have reviewed more than a hundred matters under this act and, in the process, we have made great progress in educating towns and cities about these kinds of subtle, but pervasive, forms of religious discrimination.     In one case, we launched an investigation involving the Beaver Assembly of God in Brighton Township, Pennsylvania. When the Assembly of God wanted to expand its church building, which it had outgrown, its zoning application was rejected because it had only three-and-a-quarter acres of land and the     Brighton zoning code required houses of worship to have a minimum lot size of five acres. The same zoning code, however, included no such minimum acreage requirement for non-religious uses such as fraternal organizations, assembly halls, and even adult movie theaters and cabarets.     Following a lawsuit by the church and the launch of our investigation, the township amended its zoning ordinance to eliminate the five acre requirement. That's an important signal to other communities to take a close look at their rules and make sure they are complying with the law. And by publicizing these cases, and letting people know we take religious freedom seriously, we can magnify the effect of one investigation a hundredfold.     We also are charged under the Civil Rights Act to protect against discrimination in public and private employment. Included in this, of course, is the requirement that employers make an effort to accommodate the religious practices of their employees. And it also embraces the premise that people deserve to be hired or not hired based on their qualifications, not on their faith.     When the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority refused to accept applications for bus driver positions unless the applicant indicated that he or she was available to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we filed suit, arguing that the policy discriminated against Sabbath-observant Christians and Jews. The MTA agreed to change its application policy and to allow drivers to swap assignments with other drivers.     We weren't asking for anything extraordinary, just the kind of reasonable accommodation of religious belief and practice that the law requires.     Not every religious freedom case is about willful intolerance. Sometimes it's a well-meaning city employee or school system that wants to do the right thing, but is afraid. Sometimes it's a person of faith who is so scared of offending anyone that he will err on the side of caution and ban anything that might be considered religious. And in those cases the Department of Justice seeks to gently correct the situation; to steer everybody back to a proper balance of the civil liberties of all citizens.     But sometimes it's about a flat-out bully. A person so filled with hate and intolerance that he will kill to impose his views on others. We see that in the terrorists who would turn the clock back 1400 years in the name of God. And I am afraid that sometimes we see it among our fellow Americans.     We have seen too many churches burned, too many rocks thrown through stained-glass windows, too many swastikas painted on sanctuary walls, too many lives taken. There are fewer of these attacks today, but still too many.     And when faced with that kind of assault, the Department of Justice has responded, and will always respond, with force and conviction.     As part of our ongoing efforts to strengthen and preserve religious liberty in this country, I am unveiling today a new initiative: the First Freedom Project. Under this program, the Department will build on our extensive record of achievement in this area and commit to even greater enforcement of religious rights for all Americans.     * We are creating a Department-wide Religious Freedom Task Force, chaired by the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, to review policies and cases to ensure that religious freedom is being protected.     * We are initiating a program of public education, to make certain that people know their rights, and to build relationships with religious, civil rights, and community leaders to ensure that religious liberty concerns are brought to our attention.     * We will hold a series of regional training seminars for these and other leaders interested in religious liberty. The first will be in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 29, followed by events in Tampa in April, Seattle in May, and others to be announced later.     * We have launched a new website, firstfreedom.gov, with information on the laws we enforce and how to file a complaint.     * And we will be distributing informational literature to religious organizations, civil rights groups, and community leaders on how to file a complaint.     President Bush declared his commitment to this issue last year by saying: "We reject religious discrimination in every form, and we continue our efforts to oppose prejudice and to counter any infringements on religious freedom."     As an important part of our efforts, in 2002 the Department of Justice created the position of Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination. This person, Eric Treene, who is with me here today, is charged with enforcing our civil rights laws as they relate to religious liberties. Get to know Eric; he will be your contact on this important new initiative and on all of our efforts in this area.     And make no mistake, I am here to ask the Southern Baptist Convention, and all of you in this room, for your help. The Department of Justice has many tools to protect religious freedoms in this country, and we are using them. But even with all of our passion and our dedication to this cause, we cannot do it alone.     I want you to go back to your communities and help us spread the word about the Department's religious liberty efforts. Visit the website, read the report, learn about what we've been doing, and tell your neighbors. Education and awareness are among our most powerful weapons in combating discrimination. I truly believe that the cases we investigate are often a matter of a misunderstanding of the law, not an intentional violation of it.     If you hear of a situation that you think might be a violation of federal civil rights laws, I want you to contact us so that we can look into it.     I want your input and your ideas about the issues our Religious Liberties Task Force should address. The goal of this task force is a serious one, and I want it to act as a substantive review of where we stand and where we may need to focus more attention.     And, finally, I want to encourage you to attend one of our regional training seminars, and I want you to encourage others to attend as well. These will be valuable educational opportunities for us and for all of our partners.     You know, and I know, that this great Nation of ours is the most diverse and tolerant in the history of the world. We have an unrestrained confidence in the promise of man, strengthened by our trust in a higher power.     Our Founders were men of faith. They understood that, even before their time, this land was settled by pilgrims seeking religious freedom. They understood the importance of a government that respected and protected the "First Freedom." As James Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments: "The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate."     I am proud to be a part of an administration, and a Department of Justice, that understands and takes seriously this heritage. And I am so very glad to be here among men and women who understand and share our commitment.     I do not often talk publicly about my faith ... but it is important to me ... it is part of who I am as a person. Many here have reached an age when you think about your own mortality more and more. I for one believe I will be held to account for my life. Was I the best husband I could be? The best father? The best neighbor? The best public servant? Did I make a positive difference in the lives of others ... did I truly live a life worth living? Ultimately God will be the judge and history will tell the story. Whatever the final outcome, I will do my best to work with you and other people of faith to protect our religious freedoms.     And if you leave here today with nothing else, I want you to take with you the story of young Nashala Hearn, who knew that she shouldn't have to choose between her education and her faith. If you know of any Nashalas out there, who find themselves facing down religious intolerance, and who think they're all alone in their fight ... you tell them to come talk to me.     Thank you again for your good work. May God bless you all, may He continue to guide and watch over you, and may He continue to bless the United States of America.     Contact: U.S. Department of Justice (202) 514-2008, TDD (202) 514-1888      Web site: http://www.USDOJ.GOV  

SOURCE U.S. Department of Justice

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