Christians permitted to work at Justice Department

Injured ChristiansNeil Lewis had a front-page story in The New York Times Thursday where he alleged that the political appointees at the Justice Department hate black people and only care about conservative Christians. What’s more, they’re hiring Christians from law schools that good secular people don’t go to. And the worst thing is that the political and policy folks appointed by the president to direct the agency are in fact doing so in a manner different than the Times would like.

Here’s how the story begins:

In recent years, the Bush administration has recast the federal government’s role in civil rights by aggressively pursuing religion-oriented cases while significantly diminishing its involvement in the traditional area of race.

… Intervening in federal court cases on behalf of religion-based groups like the Salvation Army that assert they have the right to discriminate in hiring in favor of people who share their beliefs even though they are running charitable programs with federal money.

Supporting groups that want to send home religious literature with schoolchildren; in one case, the government helped win the right of a group in Massachusetts to distribute candy canes as part of a religious message that the red stripes represented the blood of Christ.

Vigorously enforcing a law enacted by Congress in 2000 that allows churches and other places of worship to be free of some local zoning restrictions. The division has brought more than two dozen lawsuits on behalf of churches, synagogues and mosques.

Taking on far fewer hate crimes and cases in which local law enforcement officers may have violated someone’s civil rights. The resources for these traditional cases have instead been used to investigate trafficking cases, typically involving foreign women used in the sex trade, a favored issue of the religious right.

The anecdotes may or may not be cherry-picked for dramatic effect. But either way they are clearly written in a leading way. I think I’ve made my feelings about government funding of any religious institution known (I despise it, without exception) but phrasing that first example that way is just crude. Lewis could have, for instance, written that Justice doesn’t trample on religious groups’ First Amendment freedoms just because they help the government with welfare programs. Later on in the story (well past the part most people have stopped reading) he fleshes out a few of the other examples and it’s clear he exaggerated them.

In general this is the problem that plagues the entire article. For all I know, Lewis might have had an interesting thesis that could have been substantiated . . . if he didn’t completely overreach in trying to paint a portrait of an evil theocracy running amok. Here he tries to scare readers about the hiring of Christians:

Along with its changed civil rights mission, the department has also tried to overhaul the roster of government lawyers who deal with civil rights. The agency has transferred or demoted some experienced civil rights litigators while bringing in lawyers, including graduates of religious-affiliated law schools and some people vocal about their faith, who favor the new priorities. That has created some unease, with some career lawyers disdainfully referring to the newcomers as “holy hires.”

. . . In addition, Mr. Ashcroft arranged for the agency’s senior political appointees to take over the decades-old system used to hire recent law school graduates for entry-level career jobs that are supposed to be nonpartisan.

Under the system, known as the honors program, nonpolitical career lawyers had screened applicants. Those selected were almost exclusively graduates of top-ranked law schools and often had had prestigious judicial clerkships or other relevant experience.

Monica M. Goodling, a former senior aide to Mr. Gonzales, testified to a House committee last month that she had improperly used politics to hire some people as assistant federal prosecutors and for other civil service jobs, a possible violation of federal employment laws.

But the pattern of hiring on an ideological basis was more widespread than what Ms. Goodling described, according to interviews and department statistics.

Figures provided by the department show that from 2003 through 2006, there was a notable increase of hirings from religious-affiliated institutions like Regent University and Ave Maria University.

Wow, that sounds really bad! I mean, hiring Christians is one thing but clearly Ashcroft and Gonzalez are hiring too many Christians into the Justice Department. And yet . . . and yet . . . after hammering this theme throughout the entire article, Lewis concedes that the number of hires from religious institutions is quite small compared to the number from Harvard. And a graph accompanying the article completely undercuts Lewis’ point. Look at the number of hires from Regent and big bad Ave Maria. Fewer than one per year, on average, during both Bush administrations:


And about that line “some career lawyers disdainfully referring to the newcomers as ‘holy hires’”: How many thousands of career lawyers are there at Justice? How many made this charge that religious hires are unworthy? Did they all use that same phrase? All one of them? All two of them? And if they’re not willing to be named, are we sure their slur is worth including?

I know that reporters are supposed to spice up copy and make things sound dramatic so as to engage the reader, but this clearly is going too far. Any point Lewis might have had doesn’t hold up when the facts are brought to light.

The more substantive charge is that the Justice Department is investigating and prosecuting fewer voting discrimination cases against blacks and at the same it’s prosecuting more cases involving religious discrimination. Some might say that this could be a reflection of a more pluralistic society in the last decade. Some might suggest that there are fewer instances of voting discrimination against blacks in 2007 than 1967. Or the Times could say that this is a reflection of Bush catering to far-right religious groups.

But again, the article manages to undercut itself again. The cases must not be too crazy since “the Justice Department has successfully argued” them, “prevailed in many, if not most of the cases in which it has become involved,” “has, in effect, duplicated in the religious arena its past success in cases involving race and national origin” and the “department’s emphasis has been embraced by some groups representing Muslims, Jews and especially Christian conservatives, who have long complained that the federal government ignored their grievances about discrimination.”

Lewis uses the descriptive term “some” a dozen or more times, once to say that an unquantified group of people think Justice is going beyond its mandate in looking into religious discrimination. But then he notes the Supreme Court and Congress have both made decisions since 2000 that support the role for investigation of religious discrimination. And, well, the 1964 Civil Rights Act does include religion, he concedes.

The biased approach worked, though. Lewis’ story was placed above the fold on the front page of the paper. I doubt a more balanced treatment would have received the same prominent placement.

There is nothing new about differences of opinion about how to interpret law and what enforcement priorities are best. Demographics change over time, Congress passes new laws and political administrations change. Clearly such changes anger people and should be covered by mainstream newspapers. But when covering stories about this occurrence, it’s important to be balanced and fair. I can’t help but think that Lewis would have benefited from one of the Times‘ excellent religion reporters lending a hand for this story.

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  • Irenaeus

    The resources for these traditional cases have instead been used to investigate trafficking cases, typically involving foreign women used in the sex trade, a favored issue of the religious right.

    Glad to know that liberals don’t think this is a big deal. Sheesh. Maybe Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy are concerned this new direction will cut off their supply…

  • Michael

    While I agreed with the story and find the emphasis on religion discrimination alarming, I think the reporter missed a major–but not very sexy–point about the outrage.

    DOJ’s civil rights unit is uniquely qualified to bring certain kinds of civil rights cases that private lawyers generally don’t have the money or incentive to bring: housing discrimination, employment discrimination in public employment, voting rights violations. These cases often don’t produce significant attorneys fees–or DOJ has unique powers unavailable to private attorneeys–and therefore having the government bring them is important.

    The religious cases–with the exception of the human trafficking cases–don’t really fall into this category. Groups like the ACLJ and the Becket Fund exist to bring these kinds of cases, yet DOJ is getting involved. In contrast, the civil rights groups rarely bring housing discrimination cases or employment bias in government cases because of the expense and because of DOJ’S unique ability to bring a class action lawsuit without satisfying the class action rules.

    Race bias and discrimination hasn’t gone away magically during the Bush years. The Civil Rights unit at DOJ (like much of DOJ) has been dessimated during the Bush era with 80 to 90 percent drops in certain kinds of cases being brought. We now see the attention to the crisis at DOJ, but many have argued it all started with the overpoliticization of the civil rights division, once considered the most premier section at DOJ.

  • Andy

    Michael, could it be that ACLJ and Becket were created to compensate for DOJ ignoring these sorts of cases, in which case DOJ is now correcting their error?

  • Michael

    During the Clinton and Reagan years, DOJ brought religion cases on behalf of minority religions. The emphasis on cases on behalf of Christians (like bringing cases on behalf of whites) is an unusual turn for a civil rights agency.

  • Martha

    Of course, if the Eeevil Administration really wanted to be particularly Eeevil, they could hire a Christian person of colour (as I believe the approved term is), and watch the head-explodings.

    Person of colour? Good!

    Christian? Bad!

    Person of colour and Christian? Bad! No, good! No, bad! bzzzt…fizzz…circuits overloading…daisy, daisy, give me your answer, do…

  • Martha

    “Supporting groups that want to send home religious literature with schoolchildren; in one case, the government helped win the right of a group in Massachusetts to distribute candy canes as part of a religious message that the red stripes represented the blood of Christ.”

    Aw, man, why didn’t we have these cool groups when I was a kid? They got sticks of rock from school? In my day, we had to make do with the real blood of Christ when we made our First Communion. Oh, I’m so jealous. I bet he is, too. Who wouldn’t like a nice big stick of red’n’white striped sugary goodness?

  • Martha

    I also note from that handy chart the shocking and undeniable evidence of blatant prejudice and bias as regards hiring graduates of Harvard vis-a-vis graduates of Yale.

    Between two and seven times as many were hired from one institution as from another: in 2002, 10 from Harvard, 1 from Yale; in 2003 8 from Harvard, 4 Yalies; 2004 – 12 Harvard, 3 Yale; 2005 – a shocking 14 from Harvard as against a measly 2 from Yale; 2006 – again, a terrfying 16 from Harvard, as against a mere 4 from Yale.

    Something must be done now to stop this rampant distortion of the hiring curve!

  • Andy

    Martha, it’s even more surprising when one considers the Bush family are all Yalies.

  • Rathje

    Honestly, I think this is more about snotty Harvard lawyers looking down their noses at anyone less worthy than they.

    Just this one lawyer’s opinion, but… In general, legal education in America is a large mound of dung. Harvard currently sits at the top of that mound and feels that it’s something to be proud of.

    I’ve known Harvard teams to be absolutely taken apart by even teams from third tier lawschools. Believe me, their law grads aren’t really all that much smarter than the grads from University of South Dakota. It’s more or less, all one where you decide to hire.

    But US News and World Report continues to publish its lists, and everyone else in America rushes out into the street to admire the emperor’s new clothes.

  • Elizabeth

    Yeah, the whole article sounds pretty ridiculous, but the line that absolutely goes overboard is the sex trade. Good to know that’s a huge issue conservative Christians are pushing…
    I’m sure some of the more liberal, human rights organizations would be sad to know they need to change their ways and join forces with the bad Christians at the Justice Department to get anything done.
    How did Lewis get by an editor with not only a random comment like that – but also the fragmented sentences you quoted?

  • Martha

    I liked the sniffy way in which he tied in the enthusiasm of the ‘holy hires’ for cases involving sex trafficking with combating slavery.

    I mean, my dear, one would almost think slavery had been a bad thing, the way they carry on! And interfering with women’s perfectly legitimate choices to work in the sex industry – what is this, the Middle Ages?

    (It’s not like sex trafficking might involve a denial of human rights, yeah?)

  • Ave Maria Alum

    Elaine Kaplan was a DOJ activist who is celebrated precisely because she used her position as head of the DOJ’s OSC to repeatedly throw bones to her fellow homosexuals. She single-handedly transformed that office into a gay-agenda lobbying machine. Now that the same office is under new leadership and is being used to enforce the long-ignored civil rights of religious people, somehow the fans of Kaplan’s activism cry foul?

  • Steven in Falls Church

    Mollie–I always find it interesting to right-click on photos on on-line NYT articles to see what the staff named the photos. In this case, the law school hire chart is named:

    It’s telling that the GIF image file name would have a version of the word “discriminate” in it.

  • Mollie
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  • Dan

    Mollie, I’m new to the blog so I’m sorry that I didn’t post earlier. But you seem to miss the point of the story. It is not that the U.S. DOJ is hiring Christians — or even, as you put it, that the reporter is trying to “scare readers about the hiring of Christians.”

    Rather, the story is about a federal agency going out of its way to hire a particular type of Christian — a distinction you fail to make throughout your posting. DOJ has brought on many conservative Christians, one of whom has admitted violating civil service regulations in her hiring and promotions. The reporter is trying to make the case that this influx of evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics has had an impact on the cases brought by DOJ. I think Lewis makes a pretty good case for his point. How is this not a legitimate news story?

  • Ave Maria Alum


    See post 12. The tradition (as is clear from examining the hiring and homosexualist DOJ activities of labor-lesbian activist Elaine Kaplan who headed the DOJ’s OSC) is to hire qualified people who hold viewpoints that the DOJ hiring official also holds. The article would be balanced only if it acknowledged that the hirings and cases now being questioned seemed just as ideological as those during Kaplan’s – to include the very hiring of Kaplan herself.