WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (JTA) Before last week’s nomination of former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General, it seemed that President-elect George W. Bush’s Cabinet nominees would be moderate, non-controversial figures.
Now, Jewish groups are weighing their positions and deciding whether they might want to join organizations voicing concern and displeasure at the conservative appointee’s record on civil and abortion rights and religious liberties.
Ashcroft, who lost his re-election bid last month but got the nod to head the Justice Department last Friday, is perhaps best known to Jewish organizations for his leadership on charitable choice and his successful fight for its inclusion in 1996 welfare reform laws.
Charitable choice block grants specifically allowing states to use charities or faith-based organizations to provide social services has become something of a flashpoint for many groups who feel it can violate the separation of church and state and civil rights protections.
What matters is how the role of religious institutions will be expanded in providing social welfare programming, says Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.
Ashcroft’s crafting of charitable choice legislation shows a disregard for constitutional restrictions, and few safeguards in areas such as protection against employment discrimination, Pelavin said.
Pelavin called Ashcroft’s nomination “troubling.” The RAC is collecting information on Ashcroft’s voting record, he said, but formally opposes presidential appointments only in rare instances.
Groups will need to consider not only Ashcroft’s congressional record, but his performance as Missouri’s attorney general from 1976 to 1984 and governor from 1985 to 1993.
The Jewish Federation of St. Louis said it has disagreed with Ashcroft over the years on such issues as church-state separation, gun control and abortion rights issues.
The National Council of Jewish Women views Ashcroft’s position on abortion rights as “extreme.”
Sammie Moshenberg, director of the group’s Washington operations, cited Ashcroft’s vote last year against a resolution to reaffirm Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that upheld a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
Also in 1999, Ashcroft voted to ban partial birth abortions and to disallow overseas military abortions.
Moshenberg said she is concerned about Ashcroft’s priorities and the resources he will allocate to such programs as the Justice Department’s task force on abortion clinic violence.
NCJW is working this week to formulate its position on Ashcroft’s nomination.
Jewish organizations also are concerned about Ashcroft’s record on affirmative action and education.
A few years ago, Ashcroft voted to end special funding for businesses owned by women and minorities, and voted against prohibiting job discrimination by sexual orientation.
In 1998, Ashcroft voted for education savings accounts, a program similar to vouchers. A year earlier, he supported a voucher program in Washington schools.