US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales launched a new initiative February 20 to better protect freedom of religion in the country, in a project known as The First Freedom Project — religious freedom is listed first in the Bill of Rights and is a "fundamental freedom on which so many of our other freedoms rest," said a statement released by the Department of Justice.
"Preserving religious liberty requires an ongoing commitment to protecting this most basic freedom for people of all faiths," Gonzales said. He announced the project in a speech to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention last month.
"One of our most cherished freedoms, one we've sacrificed greatly to defend, is our religious liberty," the attorney general said at the SBC Building in Nashville, Tennessee. "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."
The Freedom First Project is based on a foundational commitment to "continued expansion of enforcement of civil rights statutes protecting religious liberty," the DOJ statement said.
Among the commitments set out by the Project is the creation of a Justice Department Task Force on Religious Liberty, set up to review current department polices on religious liberty, to oversee religious liberty cases and to work on improving communication with concerned communities.
As well, the Justice Department wants to hold a series of seminars throughout the country to better educate the public about the laws that ensure religious freedom is protected, and to offer instruction on how to file complaints.
"The attorney general's desire to address a major meeting of SBC leaders to announce this initiative shows both the importance of the issue and the commitment of the justice department at the highest levels to defend every individual American's religious freedom rights, particularly their free exercise rights, which are too often infringed," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told the Baptist Press.
"This initiative is needed and should make a real difference. When individuals find themselves in a confrontation concerning their free exercise rights, it helps to have the attorney general and the Department of Justice on your side."
The announcement of the initiative was accompanied by the release of a report documenting efforts taken by the DOJ to enforce religious liberty laws over the past five years. Entitled Report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom: Fiscal Years 2001-2006, the document shows an increased emphasis on enforcing religious liberty legislation, including laws banning religious discrimination in employment and public education, and laws preventing zoning authorities from discriminating against houses of worship and religious schools.
"I am here to ask the Southern Baptist Convention, and all of you in this room, for your help," the attorney general said. "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 am so very glad to be here among men and women who understand and share our commitment."
To access First Freedom Project webpage.