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Jewish World Review May 17, 2001 / 24 Iyar, 5761

Laura Ingraham

Laura Ingraham
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Consumer Reports

Ashcroft's abuse of power -- AT this point in Janet Reno's tenure as attorney general, we were debating whether federal law enforcement was culpable in the April 19, 1993 deaths of at least 80 Branch Davidians in their Waco compound. Eight years later, George W. Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft, has his own scandal brewing, complete with unnamed Deep Throats and a front-page story in The Washington Post.

And what is Ashcroft's alleged abuse of power?

He prays! And that's not all: He does this at the office! And sometimes others even join him!

Bring on the special prosecutor!

The Post reports that Ashcroft begins his days at the Justice Department the way he began his days as a U.S. senator with a brief Bible study. Attendance is (obviously) not compulsory and open to employees of all faiths. His aides say an Orthodox Jew is a regular participant.

Anonymous Justice staffers told the Post that Ashcroft's workplace prayer makes them uncomfortable. They found it "alienating," "outrageous," even "unconstitutional."

It is pure legalistic fiction to contend, as some are, that line attorneys in the Justice Department, which has 135,000 employees worldwide, will be held back professionally if they don't show up at Ashcroft's pre-work Bible readings. Indeed, few would have even known about the morning prayers if unnamed sources hadn't rung up the Post. Rather, it's Ashcroft who is being subject to subtle intimidation here: Pray in private, away from others, or we'll get you.

His record of enforcement in his first four months seems irrelevant. So what if Ashcroft (who we were supposed to believe was a racist back in January) has acted with dispatch in tackling the issue of racial profiling. Or launched a federal investigation into whether Cincinnati police have engaged in a "pattern or practice" of depriving minorities of their civil rights. Or that he is trying to have one of the most racially and ethnically diverse staffs of any attorney general.

This is only the latest in a long series of bizarrely hostile reactions to those in public life who speak openly about their faith or pray outside the confines of a church. We have the U.S. Supreme Court to thank for much of this; its recent rulings in cases involving religion essentially eviscerated the First Amendment's free-exercise clause.

Whether on the cable shows or the Op-Ed pages, liberals routinely wail about this or that violation of the "separation of church and state." The phrase "separation of church and state," however, is not found anywhere in the Constitution, which says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

The idea that our Founders would have taken this to prohibit the personal observance of religion in public spaces, including government offices, is absurd. For those who are serious about their faith, spirituality is not something that can be left at home each day. It's not a hobby. It's their guidepost for daily living, with them in times of crisis and success.

In Matthew 5:14-16, Christians are basically under an injunction from G-d not to keep their belief under wraps: "A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds."

Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman regularly invoked Judaism on the campaign trail last fall and quoted frequently from the Torah. President Bush cited the Christian savior as the philosopher who most influenced him. Although some in The New Yorker magazine set snickered at the latter, for a brief period in our political life it seemed that maybe, just maybe, we had all grown up and come to understand that religious practice is not a threat to a civil society.

But no such luck. Even if the prayer police don't succeed in stopping Ashcroft from reading Scripture with staffers at the beginning of each day, they will probably succeed in making government service less attractive to the devoutly religious.

Perhaps the "separation of church and state" folks should just lobby for the installation of Bible detectors at the entrance to all government buildings.

JWR contributor Laura Ingraham is the host of a radio show syndicated nationally by Westwood One Radio Network. Comment by clicking here.

© 2001, Laura Ingraham